Making small talk with strangers can be intimidating at the best of times. When you’re a non-native speaker, however, it can sometimes be a terrifying experience.

The fear of saying the wrong thing, not understanding something said to you or even reacting inappropriately to a statement means language-learners often freeze up when attempting small talk with a native speaker.

However, there are certain strategies we can learn which can help us to dampen our fears and appear relaxed, self-assured and much more proficient in our English-speaking abilities.

In a previous article (How to Master Small Talk), we looked at reacting to new information by using several techniques which demonstrated that we were interested in what someone was saying to us.

In this article, we’re going to focus on another crucial skill of making small talk - using negative questions. This handy skill helps to move small talk forward by asking questions which express surprise or seek confirmation.

Let’s find out more.


What is a negative question?

We all know the purpose of a question: to discover an answer. Negative questions are different. We use negative questions when we presume that we know the answer and are actually asking for confirmation of our assumption.

Let’s take a look at an example of a positive and negative question:

Example one

Anna: Do you like movies, Steve?

Steve: Yes! I love them.

Example two

Anna: Don’t you watch TV?

Steve: No, actually I only really watch DVDs.

In example one (a positive question), Anna is genuinely ignorant of the answer. It is a question where she makes no assumptions as to whether Steve likes movies or not.

In example two (a negative question), Anna expects the answer to be ‘no’. Perhaps she’s been asking Steve about various TV shows and he’s expressed no particular knowledge or interest. Therefore, her negative question is based on an assumption.

This type of negative question can be categorised as Expressing surprise and expecting the answer ‘no’.

But negative questions have more than one function. Let’s take a look at another example:

Example three

Steve: I generally watch movies at the cinema instead of on TV.

Anna: Oh I suppose you’ve seen the new Star Wars film! Isn’t it great?

Steve: Yeah, I absolutely loved it.

Here, Anna is using another negative question. But this time she’s not expressing surprise.

This type of negative question can be categorised as Asking for confirmation and expecting the answer ‘yes’.

So, to summarise: we can use negative questions in two distinct ways:

1) to express surprise when we are expecting the answer ‘no’
2) to ask for confirmation when expecting the answer ‘yes’


Recognising the difference

So, how do we differentiate the two distinct meanings? Take a look at these two questions and decide which is expressing surprise and which is asking for confirmation.

Conversation one

Steve: What you are eating? It looks delicious!

Anna: It’s just some gnocchi I had leftover from last night.

Steve: Some what?

Anna: Some gnocchi. Haven’t you been to Italy, Steve?

Conversation two

Steve: What are you reading, Anna?

Anna: Oh, just some holiday brochures. We want to get away this summer.

Steve: Great! Any idea where you’re going?

Anna: Well, we’re split between Italy and Spain. We just can’t decide. Haven’t you been to Italy, Steve?

In both of these conversation the negative question is identical in its form but has two separate meanings. Can you work out which is which?

That’s right, in conversation one Anna is Expressing surprise and expecting the answer ‘no’, while in conversation two Anna is Asking for confirmation and expecting the answer ‘yes’.


An important note on usage

An important thing to remember here, is that expecting the answer is not the same as it being the answer. Although Anna expects the answer ‘no’ in conversation one, perhaps Steve has actually been to Italy. If we continued the exchange, it might look like this:

Anna: Some gnocchi. Haven’t you been to Italy, Steve?

Steve: Actually I have, but I just ate pizza the whole time I was there!

Equally, in conversation two Anna is expecting the answer ‘yes’ but perhaps her assumption is incorrect. For example:

Anna: Well, we’re split between Italy and Spain. We just can’t decide. Haven’t you been to Italy, Steve?

Steve: No, not me. You’re thinking of Pete in accounts. He went there a few weeks back.



Practice one

Let’s look at one last conversation between Anna and Steve. In this conversation there are three negative questions. Read through the conversation and decide whether each question is used for Expressing surprise and expecting the answer ‘no’ or for Asking for confirmation and expecting the answer ‘yes’.

Remember, that just because we expect a certain answer with negative questions does not mean it is the answer we will receive.

Steve: I’m a big science fiction geek, to be honest.

Anna: Yeah, I’ve heard! Didn’t you attend a Star Trek convention in the States last summer?

Steve: Yeah! It was great fun. Are you a fan of the show too?

Anna: Is it the one with the doctor who travels around in a telephone box?

Steve: No! You’re thinking of Doctor Who. Haven’t you ever seen Star Trek?

Anna: I guess not. I generally just watch comedies on TV.

Steve: Well you should check it out, it’s a classic show. Although perhaps a bit dated now.

Anna: Aren’t they making it anymore?

Steve: Well, there have been various series over the years, but there’s a new one coming out next year.

Anna: OK, well I’ll try and remember to catch it when it comes on next.


Practice two

Let’s have a go at making some negative questions. Take a look at the prompts below and use the structures we’ve looked at to make negative questions. Once you’ve done this, you can practice making appropriate answers.

The first one of each set has already been completed as an example.


Expressing surprise (expecting the answer ‘no’)

1. (you go) + (to the office Christmas party next week)? I thought it was compulsory.

2. (you like) + (the new boss)? He seems okay to me.

3. (you speak) + (French)? I thought you lived in Paris for a while.

4. (you ride) + (a bike)? That’s strange for someone your age.

5. (you see) + (Tom Cruise when you were in Los Angeles last year)? I’m sure you did.


1. Aren’t you going to the Christmas party next week? I thought it was compulsory.

1. No, I’ll actually be out of the country.

Asking for confirmation (expecting the answer ‘yes’)

6. (you know) + (Craig)? I’m sure you’ve mentioned him in the past.

7. (we meet) + (somewhere before)? Perhaps at the Basingstoke conference?

8. (you think) + (this necklace is beautiful)? It’d go so well with my blue dress.

9. (you work) + (nights)? What are you doing up at this hour?

10. (you start) + (university in September)? I expect you’re pretty excited?


A: Don’t you know Craig? I’m sure you’ve mentioned him in the past.

B: Yeah, we go back years actually.


Image Source:

Hero image by Pexels (CC0)