Broken English: What, You Never Noticed?

I am of the opinion that the English language is pretty neato and fun, but I suppose people make that same claim for just about every language. And why shouldn’t they? Language is pretty neato and fun.

Blog over.

Kidding! So but actually, I was thinking: Every once in awhile you run into some facet of the language–English, I mean, though it probably happens in every language–but some facet that begs for clarification.

Here’s a thing!:

In Japanese, you are sometimes asked questions with the following literal syntax: “You don’t [blank]?”

Example: You don’t eat meat?

I’m not really sure why or how, but when you are asked things in this fashion in Japanese, it is always clear how you should answer. To continue with the above example, if you don’t eat meat, you would say, “Yes.” If you do eat meat, the speaker is “wrong” in their question, and you would thus say, “No.” Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that Japanese people tend to be weird about using the word no in general and would be much more prone to just say “I eat meat.” But for the sake of this hypothetical scenario, you could say “No” and the inquirer would almost certainly understand right away that you mean that you do in fact eat meat.

It makes sense to me, and can be broken down to the following formula:

Q: Subject verb (optional: object (note: object comes before verb in Japanese, but nevertheless!))?

A: Yes=Correct | No=Incorrect

Whether the verb in the initial question is affirmative or negative is irrelevant. They are still asking for a confirmation of their correctness or lack thereof.

So why, then, in English, is this same situation always such an excruciating pain in the ass? In English, there always seems to be a weird ambiguity when someone busts out a question containing a negative verb.

Scenario 1

Q: You don’t eat meat?

A: Yes. (Translation: “I don’t eat meat.”)

Scenario 2

Q: You don’t eat meat?

A: No. (Translation: “I don’t eat meat.”)

Is there a way to use yes or no to clarify that you do, in fact, eat meat? I’m not so sure there is. But the question is undeniably a yes-or-no question. These situations are despised by English-speakers and should be avoided at all costs. And yet you still hear people whip out the negative verb question rather frequently. “What, you don’t like Macy Gray?”

The solution, of course, is just to add some kind of clarifying clause: “No, I do like Macy Gray. I like her a lot! Hence the neck tattoo!” But I resent the fact that we are required to add all kinds of clauses and personal details. Have we no rights?

It also bothers me that if I’m ever asked, “You don’t speak English?” my answer is likely to be something to the effect of,

“I. . . I. . . don’t know!”

because I genuinely don’t know what English I’m supposed to speak in that situation.

5 thoughts on “Broken English: What, You Never Noticed?

  1. I should note that this post was spurred by the following line of text in a localized game:

    “Don’t want any more items? No | Yes”

    Ugh. I mean, I hesitate to even say “localized.” The options should have been:

    “No | Yes I do want some more items please.”

  2. I usually only recall these statements coming up when the context goes against the previous assumption. “You don’t eat meat? (I thought you did.)” I also think such statements were initially formed to force politeness from the listener, by assuming a negative response from him. “Don’t you like my new sweater?” puts it out in the open that the listener may in fact not like the sweater. Regardless of what the listener thinks, the assumption of a negative thought has been placed on him, coercing a positive response.

  3. I know what you mean, but even if they’re just responding rhetorically to prior context, there’s always the chance that they’re incorrect.

    “Flank steak?”
    “Nah thanks.”
    “What, you don’t eat meat?”


    Also, “Don’t you [blank]?” is sort of a different thing. A simple “yes” or “no” seems to work fine in those instances, even if a specific answer is expected of you.

    As an added note, there also exists the form, “You don’t [blank], do you?”

    DO YOU? <That is the question. In theory, adding this tag should alleviate the confusion, and yet–it never seems to.

    1. Oh man, I was just going to comment about “You don’t ___, do you?”! I was thinking about it today and couldn’t even rationalize how that sentence construction made sense.

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