It’s taken me years to work out how to teach negative questions. They’re so tricky! Here’s why…
1. The answers aren’t logical.
If someone says ‘Will you sit down?’, you say ‘yes’ if you plan to sit down. So why do you say ‘yes’ if they ask ‘Won’t you sit down?’ Shouldn’t it be ‘No, I will’?
There are other languages like Russian and Japanese where they are more logical about it. I didn’t understand this when I first started teaching in Tokyo and I caused lots of confusion.
Me: Can I have everyone’s homework?
(Hiroshi looks embarrassed)
Me: Haven’t you done your homework, Hiroshi?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘Yes, I haven’t done it’)
Me: Oh good, can I have it then?
(Hiroshi looks flustered)
Me: Sorry? Didn’t you say you’d done it?
Hiroshi: Yes (meaning ‘I didn’t say I’d done it’)
Me: Have you left it at home then?
When I went back to the UK, it took me a couple of years to re-learn how to answer negative questions the English way again. And actually, if you listen carefully you’ll sometimes hear native speakers answer them the other way round too.
2. If you use them in the wrong context, you can sound like you’re nagging.
In some Central European languages a negative form makes a question more polite. This can happen in English too, as in ‘Won’t you have another cup of tea?’ But more commonly we use negative questions to indicate that something is not quite what we expect it to be, and that means we can use them to express (mild) irritation. Compare ‘Can you hurry up?’ and ‘Can’t you hurry up?’ Which one is
In Slovak you might say things like ‘Haven’t you finished yet?’, and ‘Aren’t you ready yet?’ to enquire about someone’s progress when you want to sound extra pleasant. But if a native English speaker hears this they’ll think ‘Give us a chance!’ or ‘What are you breathing down my neck for?’ There’s potential for relationship damage here.
So all in all it would be jolly nice if we didn’t have to teach negative questions but there’s no getting round the fact that students will hear them and have to respond. So what to do? Well, let me show you how I now teach them…