Yes + No–A Paradoxical Language Habit that Just Makes Sense

I’d like to share with you tonight a quirk that’s wriggled its way into our modern English language. It’s so insidious that you’ve surely used it today without even noticing it. I’ve found it to be equal parts amusing, fascinating, and frustrating. Ever since I read about it, I’ve caught myself using it multiple times a day, in all settings–social and professional.

Alright, I’ll cut the suspense–it’s the paradoxical construction of “yes” plus “no” to emphasize the last part of the phrase. It sounds more confusing than it is.

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Here are some examples:

Elizabeth: Don’t you like dancing?
Darcy: No, totally.

Katniss: Would you like some berries?
Peeta: Yeah, no.

Out of context, it may sound bizarre. But if you take note, as I have (inconveniently), you’ll hear it ALL THE TIME in conversation–I’d say only verbal, not written, at this point.

The phenomenon was recently explored at length in The New Yorker article, “What Part of ‘No, Totally’ Don’t You Understand” and more concisely in NPR’s “No, Yes, Definitely: On the Rise of ‘No, Totally’ As Linguistic Quirk.”

According to both, we’ve set this problem up for ourselves as the English language has evolved. As in many other current languages, English used to have a four-part positive/negative answer system. However, we’ve dropped down to two, causing us, perhaps subconsciously, to compensate for the meaning emphasis by combining the words.

NPR explains:

Schulz [in The New Yorker article]…found out that the English language used to have more options than just “yes” and “no.”

There were four options, to be precise: “yes,” “yea,” “no” and “nay.” She writes:

” … ‘nay’ was used to respond to positive statements or questions, while “no” was reserved for contradicting anything phrased in the negative.

Is the Tabard open?
Nay, it closed at midnight.
Isn’t Chaucer meeting us here? 
No, he went home to bed.”

So, there you have it! Tell me, dear readers–have you noticed yourself using this habit lately? I’m not arguing against it; in fact, Schulz argues that sometimes, using both words increases clarity of meaning, or at least adjusts intensity. I agree with that! It’s just very interesting the way it’s sneaked into our language–unnerving, perhaps, to a writer who takes great efforts in being deliberate in her word choices. 😉 Can I get a “No, totally!”? 😉


7 thoughts on “Yes + No–A Paradoxical Language Habit that Just Makes Sense

    • Hehe, good point! It is fascinating to watch language change, in my opinion. I wonder if we delved deeper what we might discover in the realm of reasoning–WHY did they drop these other two terms?
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post; thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂


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