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Negative Constructions and Understanding

The quirks of English don't translate well

     
10:18 pm on Oct 11, 2004 (gmt 0)

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Summary: There are sometimes substantive differences in how people understand and respond to negative constructions, especially if they appear in a question/answer sequence. Try to avoid the use of negative constructions when you’re writing copy for your website, especially if you’re posing questions. Be aware of the potential for misunderstanding in conversation, too.

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I had supper a while ago with someone who is starting to do business with foreign suppliers who speak English as a second language. As he talked about the challenges of communication, he talked about the difficulty of making sure he wasn't being lied to.

On a different occasion, a different friend shared some things he learned when he lived in Canada’s high Arctic. His work brought him in close contact with the Inuit (Eskimo), and among other things he learned Inuktitut well enough to give speeches. Along the way he gained new insights into the quirks of his own language.

One of his observations might have a great deal to do with my first friend’s frustrations: He said his Inuit friends were often puzzled by the ways that English speakers use negative constructions.

I hope I can explain this ...

Suppose you went to the mall last night. If I asked, “Did you go to the mall last night?” you would say yes (assuming you intended to be truthful). But if I asked, “Didn’t you go to the mall last night?” most native speakers of English would still say yes.

Look at those two questions. Native English speakers tend to respond to them as if they meant the same thing, but if you take the words literally they are not the same at all and ought not to be answered in the same way.

We English speakers often use the word "not" or its contractions in ways which don't actually intend negation. We often stick it into a sentence for emphasis or rhythm, rather than because we actually mean "NOT". And people respond to us as if they didn’t hear the “not”.

  • "Why don't we order pizza?"
  • "Weren't you at the mall last night?"
  • “Won’t you be my Valentine?”

    Think hard about this: answering "yes" to the question "Weren't you at the mall last night?" is affirming a negative (and "no" would be denying it) even though that's not what the person intended. Most native English speakers don't hear it that way unless they stop to think about it, though. They'll perceive what the person meant despite their actual words.

    People from other language backgrounds (especially non-European) are often much more literal and logical about negative constructions than we are, both in how they use them and how they understand them. Someone who took the words literally would answer that question "No" if they had been at the mall last night ... and "Yes" if they were not at the mall.

    A native English speaker hearing that answer would understand the exact opposite of what the person meant, because we don't respond the same way to the negative constructions, especially the double negatives that can build up in a question/answer sequence.

    It’s easy to imagine that many cases where someone felt they had been lied to were actually misunderstandings caused by differences in how negative constructions are understood, especially in question/answer sequences. Working through a translator would make it all even more complicated. It's easy to imagine how people on both sides of a discussion could feel lied to, even when everyone was trying to communicate in good faith.

    My friend from the Arctic said his Inuit friends would sometimes ask if he was "thinking white" before they'd answer him in a conversation ... and they'd sometimes double-check that even when he was speaking Inuktitut.

    The issue is more than just a linguistic curiosity. My friend said he knew of cases where misunderstandings in court testimony led to Inuit being wrongfully jailed.

    It's ironic that my business friend grumbled about "them", when a big part of his frustration might well be rooted in illogicalities on the English-speaking side.

    I share all this as something to think about that's a little different from what usually circulates around here. Have some fun in the next while listening for negative constructions in the speech of people around you, and notice how others (or you) respond. Resist the urge to point out the illogicalities you spot, though!

  • 12:24 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    Don't you just love the English language? ;)

    Nice post, buckworks

    1:07 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    :) ditto. great post.

    It's one thing that has always annoyed me.. since my fourth birthday exactly.

    Mum and Dad gave me a bike. Big and new and shiny and blue - and two wheels.

    Dad held the handlebars and the back of the seat while I clambered on and we wobbled up and down the driveway.

    As Dad walked and I pedalled he said to me "and Deejay, you won't go on the road now, will you?"

    Me, pedalling unsteadily, grinning like a loon and eyes about to pop, answered "Yes Dad".

    Only to get a loud "WHAT?!" in my ear. The loudest I have ever heard my Dad speak, before or since, come to that.

    My intention: "Yes Dad, you're right, I won't go on the road, and I love my new bike and you're the best dad in the world"

    His interpretation: "Yeah of course I'm going on the road you silly old fart - I'll be pulling wheelies up and down the motorway the minute you turn your back".

    He doesn't remember it of course, but I do... vividly.. some *mumblemumble* years later.

    Ever since.. I still find myself hesitating at answering a negative construction - not sure what answer the questioner expects to hear.

    2:03 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    GREAT post, buckworks! I'm a HORRIBLE example of same.... and I have Irish friends who call me on it ALL THE TIME.

    I wonder if this is more an Americanism? I don't know many UK English, and my Irish friends don't seem to do this at all....

    9:19 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    An excellent reminder for those with English as our first language.

    You won't forget to post another like that, will you, buckworks? ;)

    10:42 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    and my Irish friends don't seem to do this at all....

    We have always maintained that the real custodians of the "English language" actually live on or come from "our side" of "our sea"....human experience has yet to prove otherwise :)

    11:03 am on Oct 12, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    I'm technically a non-native speaker, but since I'm more comfortable with english then my technically mother-tounge, I have no problems with negations. But living in a country where english is the official business language, but not the native tounge I meet people who understand negations either way.

    If it's important, ALWAYS repeat the question in your answer, like you learn it in school when you're little:

    Q. Won't you drive on the road, honey?
    A. Yes, I won't drive on the road, daddy!

    Especially in business conversations where it may be very important, and of course in webcopy, where you get more space for keywords!

    SN

    7:15 pm on Oct 15, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    great post.
    7:27 pm on Oct 15, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    >>It’s easy to imagine that many cases where someone felt they had been lied to were actually misunderstandings caused by differences in how negative constructions are understood, especially in question/answer sequences.

    Yep, you see this language in referendum questions at the polls.

    Woz

    2:13 am on Oct 16, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    Great post buckworks. This is something we have touched on sometimes in the Asia-Pacific forum, and also the question of optimising for ESL. Fascinating subject area.

    Another point to consider is how speakers of other languages asnwer a qwuestion based on how they wqould anser in their native language, similar to your "affirming the negative" point.

    From personal experience with Chinese speakers of English, how they respond to "You won't do that will you?" can cause confusion. English speakers would answer "No" meaning "No I won't do that." Chinese speakers would answer "Yes" meaning "Yes, what you have said is correct in that I won't do it." Presumably this caries for most other Asian languages as well.

    >thinking white

    Hehe, when I lived in Hong Kong one of my local friends, working in the construction business as a foreman, would often double-think any challenges he came across in his work, first thinking the challenge through in Chinese, and then thinking it through again in English. Most times he came up with differing solutions and then would consider which was the better solution. Being bi-lingual can have many advantages.

    Onya
    Woz

    3:36 am on Oct 17, 2004 (gmt 0)

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    Great post buckworks. It really makes you think.

    I wasn't aware of the fact I did that until I was 23 and I said to a co-worker, "I think I'll go ask if I can't go home." To which he relied, "Why don't you ask if you CAN go home?" Wow, that was an awakening.

    Years later I heard that this was just a polite form of speech, possibly based in German. I was told by a German professor that American English has a direct connection to German. Interesting, no?