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In linguistics, a yes-no question, formally known as a polar question, is a question whose expected answer is either "yes" or "no". Formally, they present an exclusive disjunction, a pair of alternatives of which only one is acceptable. In the English language, such questions can be formed in both positive and negative forms (e.g. "Will you be here tomorrow?" and "Won't you be here tomorrow?").[1]

Yes/No questions are in contrast with non-polar wh-questions, with the Five Ws, which do not necessarily present a range of alternative answers, or necessarily restrict that range to two alternatives. (Questions beginning with "which", for example, often presuppose a set of several alternatives, from which one is to be drawn.)[1]

There are several ambiguities in yes-no questions, both in how they are posed and answered.


How such questions are posed

Yes-no questions are formed in various ways in various languages. In English, a special word order (Verb Subject Object) is used to form yes-no questions. In the Greenlandic language, yes-no questions are formed with a special verb morphology. In the Russian language and the Latin language, yes-no questions are indicated by the addition of a special grammatical particle or an enclitic. In some languages, such as in Modern Greek, the Portuguese language, and the Jakaltek language, the only way to distinguish a yes-no question from a simple declarative statement is the intonation used when saying the question. (Such questions are labelled declarative questions, and are also available as an option in those languages that have other ways of asking yes-no questions.)[2]

In Latin, the enclitic particle "-nē" (sometimes just "-n" in early Latin) can be added to the emphatic word in order to turn a declarative statement into a yes-no question. This usually forms a neutral yes-no question, implying neither answer (except where the context makes it clear what the answer must be).[3] For example:[4]

  • Tu id veritus es.
    "You feared that."
  • Tu-nē id veritus es?
    "Did you fear that?"

Yes-no questions are also formed in Latin with "nonne", implying that the interrogator thinks the answer to be the affirmative, and with "num", implying that the interrogator thinks the answer to be the negative.[3] For examples:

num negāre audēs?

("You dare not deny, do you?")

Catullus, 1,4,8[3]

Mithridātēs nōnne ad Cn. Pompeium lēgātum mīsit?

("Didn't Mithridates sent an ambassador to Gneaus Pompey?")

Pompey, 16,46[3]

In the Chinese language, yes-no questions take an A-not-A form.[4]

There is an ambiguity in English as to whether certain questions actually are yes-no questions in the first place. Syntactically identical questions can be semantically different. This can be seen by considering the following two examples, both of which are ambiguous:[5]

  • Did John play chess or checkers?
  • Did anyone play chess or checkers?

Each of the questions could be a yes-no question or could be a choice question. They could be asking the yes-no question of whether John/anybody played either of the games, to which the answer is yes or no; or they could be asking the choice question (which does not have a yes-no response) of which of the two games John/anybody played (with the presupposition that they played one or the other), to which the answer is the name of the game. Another such ambiguous question is "Would you like an apple or an orange?" to which the responses can be "An apple.", "An orange.", "Yes.", and "No.", depending from whether the question is seen as a choice question or a yes-no question. (The "Yes." answer involves a further ambiguity, discussed below.)[5][6]

A related ambiguity is questions which have the form of yes-no questions, but which are intended not to be. These are a class of questions that encompass indirect speech acts. The question "Can you reach the mustard?" is an example. In form and semantics it is a straightforward yes-no question, which can be answered either "Yes, I can." or "No, I cannot.". But there is an indirect speech act (which Clark calls an elective construal) that can optionally be inferred from the question, namely "Please pass the mustard to me.". Such indirect speech acts flout Grice's maxim of quality. And the inference on the part of the listener is optional, one that can legitimately remain untaken.[7]

Clark describes one study where a researcher telephoned fifty restaurants around Palo Alto, California, asking without embellishment the question "Do you accept credit cards?". The three forms of reply given were:[7]

  • "Yes, we do." — The respondent assumed a straightforward yes-no question, taking the form of the question at face value.
  • "Yes, we accept Mastercard and Visa." — The respondent assumed a straightfoward yes-no question but provided additional information, either as explanation ("The answer is 'yes' because we accept these two.") or as anticipation or inference of a further request as to what credit cards are accepted.
  • "We accept Mastercard and Visa." — The respondent not only took the question to be the indirect speech act, but also assumed that the question was not a yes-no question, despite its form, and so didn't provide a yes-no answer at all.

Another part of the same study was the question "Do you have a price on a fifth of Jim Beam?". Out of 100 merchants, 40 answered "Yes.".[7] A non-response bias forced researchers to disregard the survey question asking tobacconists "Do you have Prince Albert?"; although the researchers' intent was to observe whether the merchants specified that they offered the tobacco brand as packaged in a can and/or a pouch, the merchants frequently hung up the phone, presumably because they believed themselves to be the victims of a popular prank call.[8]

How such questions are answered

According to Grimes, the answer "yes" asserts a positive answer and the answer "no" asserts a negative answer, irrespective of the form of the question.[1] But in fact simple "Yes." or "No." word sentence answers to yes-no questions can be ambiguous in English. For example, a "Yes." response to the question "You don't beat your wife?" could mean either "Yes, I don't beat my wife." or "Yes, I do beat my wife." depending from whether the respondent is replying with the truth-value of the situation, or is replying to the polarity used in the question. This ambiguity does not exist in languages that employ echo answers. In the Welsh language, for example, the response "ydw" ("I am") has no such ambiguity when replying to a question.[9]

Other languages also do not follow the custom, given by Grimes, with respect to the answers "yes" and "no". In New Guinea Pidgin and Huichol, the answer given has the logical polarity implied by the form of the question. "Bai Renjinal i ranewe, o nogat?", a positive form of a question translated as "Will Reginald escape?", is answered "yes" (agreement that he will escape) or "nogat" (disagreement, he won't escape). Phrased negatively, however, as "Bai Rejinal i no ranewe, o nogat?" ("Won't Reginald escape?") the senses of the answers take the opposite polarity to English, following instead the polarity of the question. A response of "yes" is agreement that he will not escape, and a response of "nogayt" is disagreement, a statement that he will escape.[1]

A further ambiguity with yes-no questions, in addition to that of polarity, is the ambiguity of whether an exclusive or inclusive disjunction is meant by the word "or". It can represent either. Conventionally, in English yes-no questions the "or" represents an exclusive disjunction. But this is not necessarily so. As with the "Would you like an apple or an orange?" question mentioned earlier, to which one possible answer, as a yes-no question, is "Yes.", yes-no questions can also be taken to be inclusive disjunctions. The informativeness of the "or" in the question is low, especially if the second alternative in the question is "something" or "things". Though the "exclusive" and "inclusive" can be determined often in spoken language (the speaker will often lower their pitch at the end of an "exclusive" question, as opposed to raising it at the end of an "inclusive" question), this is a frequent source of humour for computer scientists and others familiar with binary logic, who will give responses such as "Yes." to questions such as "Would you like chicken or roast beef for dinner?". But the ambiguity is not confined to humour. The apple-or-orange question may be legitimately asking whether either is wanted, for example, and "Would you like an apple or something?" is indeed expecting either "Yes" or "No" as a proper answer, rather than the answer "Something" that an exclusive disjunction would be requesting.[10][11][12]

This ambiguity does not exist only in English. It exists in West Greenlandic Kalaallisut, for example. The question "Maniitsu-mu Nuum-mu=luunniit najugaqar-pa" ("Does he live in Maniitsoq or Nuuk?") is ambiguous as to whether exclusive or inclusive disjunction is meant. Commonly, this is clarified either by intonation (if the question is spoken) or the inclusion of an explicit question-word such as "sumi" ("where").[13]


  1. ^ a b c d Joseph Evans Grimes (1975). The Thread of Discourse. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 66–67. ISBN 9789027931641.  
  2. ^ Alan Cruttenden (1997). Intonation. Cambridge University Press. pp. 155–156. ISBN 9780521598255.  
  3. ^ a b c d William G. Hale and Carl D. Buck (1903). A Latin Grammar. University of Alabama Press. pp. 136. ISBN 0817303502.  
  4. ^ a b Ljiljana Progovac (1994). Negative and Positive Polarity. Cambridge University Press. pp. 151–152. ISBN 9780521444804.  
  5. ^ a b Javier Gutiérrez-Rexach (2003). Semantics. Routledge. pp. 410–411. ISBN 0415266378.  
  6. ^ Michael K. Launer (1974). Elementary Russian Syntax. Columbus, OH: Slavica publishers.  
  7. ^ a b c Herbert H. Clark (1996). Using Language. pp. 216–218,300. ISBN 9780521567459.  
  8. ^ Penny Candy and Radio in the Good Old Days, By Tony Stein, The Virginian-Pilot, October 23, 1994
  9. ^ Mark H Nodine (2003-06-14). "How to say "Yes" and "No"". A Welsh Course. Cardiff School of Computer Science, Cardiff University.  
  10. ^ Bernhard Wälchli (2005). Co-compounds and Natural Coordination. Oxford University Press. pp. 82. ISBN 9780199276219.  
  11. ^ Greg W. Scragg (1996). Problem Solving with Computers. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 310. ISBN 9780867204957.  
  12. ^ Deborah Schiffrin (1988). "Discourse connectives: and, but, or". Discourse Markers. Cambridge University Press. pp. 180–181. ISBN 9780521357180.  
  13. ^ Michael D. Fortescue (1984). West Greenlandic. Croom Helm Ltd. pp. 9–10. ISBN 070991069X.  

Further reading

See also



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