Uses of negative questions in everyday English can be grouped according to two main reasons: to be formal and polite, or to show surprise.

Contents:

Formal & polite negative questions

This is often used with “wouldn’t” and “won’t.”

1.   To make very polite offers, suggestions, requests and invitations.

Here, you could also politely insist on offers after the initial decline.

  • “Won’t you come in?”
  • “Why don’t you join us for dinner?”
2.   To express opinions in a polite way.

While this is true, this can also sound like the speaker is expecting the listener to agree with them.

  • “Wouldn’t new curtains make this place more cosy?”
  • “Wasn’t it so lovely?”

How to answer polite negative questions

– In general, you answer negative questions as if they were affirmative questions.

If you compare the affirmative and negative questions below, both of them are asking the same the same thing.

  • “Would you like to join us for dinner tonight?”
  • “Why don’t you join us for dinner?”

These are usually yes/no questions. However, it is recommended that you don’t just answer with a simple “yes” or “no,” and give more information for clarity.

  • “Sure! That sounds great.”
  • “No, thank you. I’m afraid I’m not free tonight.”

Negative questions of surprise

These are usually used when something has not happened or is not happening. Unfortunately, these negative questions will often come across as disapproving and judgmental even if you are just genuinely surprised.

These questions often start with auxiliary verbs according to their tense, e.g. “don’t” for present simple, and “haven’t” for present perfect.

They can also start with question words, but “why” is more common.

3.   To be judgemental and show disapproval.

Although tone plays a big factor, usually this is what often comes across when someone uses negative questions.

  • “Why haven’t you cleaned your room?”
  • “Don’t you watch tennis?”
4.   To tell someone off or make a complaint.
  • “Didn’t I tell you not to play in the house?”
  • “Why hasn’t he fixed the door?”
5.   To actually ask why.

Tone is also very important here but this can come across as complaining even if you genuinely want to know why.

  • “Why don’t you reply to my texts?”
  • “Why hasn’t he finished his assignments?”
6.   To be genuinely surprised that something is not what you expected.
  • “You haven’t eaten since last night. Aren’t you hungry?”
  • “Hasn’t the postman arrived? He’s usually here by now.”

* Please note: These questions can also be used in the affirmative, which may sound more polite.

  • “Has the postman arrived? He’s usually here by now.”
7.   To confirm something you believe to be true.

Especially if it has been challenged or questioned.

  • “He told me he’ll be at work all day. Isn’t he at the office?”
  • “Eve came to visit us last week. Didn’t you see her?”

* Please note: These questions can also be used in the affirmative, which may sound more polite.

  • “Eve came to visit us last week. Did you see her?”

How to answer negative questions of surprise

– Sometimes they’re rhetorical.

Rhetorical questions are used to make a point, create a dramatic effect, and don’t really expect an answer.

This would be the case when being told off.

  • “Didn’t I tell you not to play in the house?”

Or complaining about something.

  • “Hasn’t the postman arrived?”
– Don’t just answer yes/no questions with a simple “yes” or “no,” give more information for clarity.
  • “Don’t you know how to cook?”
    • “Yea I do. I just don’t feel like cooking for you.”
  • “Isn’t he at the office?”
    • “No, I haven’t seen him all day.”
– Answer “why” questions.
  • “Why hasn’t he finished his assignments?”
    • “Well, he’s been finding the subject really difficult.”

Original post: 1 October 2020