Understanding the Formation of Yes/No Questions

A Yes/No Question is a question whose expected answer is either a “yes” or “no.” Therefore, Yes/No Questions may be answered with a simple yes or no.

If a declarative sentenceOpens in new window contains an auxiliary verbOpens in new window such as have or be, a modal auxiliary Opens in new windowlike may or could, or the copular form of be, a yes/no question is created from the sentenceOpens in new window by applying the rule of subject-auxiliary (or subject-aux) inversion.

Subject-auxiliary inversion switches the position of the subject and the verbal element that follows it.

The sentences labeled “b” in 1) through 6) are yes/no questions that result from the application of subject-aux inversion to the declarative sentences labeled “a”.

Notice that in each case, the position of the verbal element that follows it have been reversed to create a question. The labels on the right describe the verb in boldface in each sentence.

    1) Copular “be”
  • a.  He is a policeman.
  • b.  Is he a policeman?
    2) Modal “could” + verb
  • a.  She could do it.
  • b.  Could she do it?
    3) Aux “is” + verb (present participle)
  • a.  She is sleeping right now.
  • b.  Is she sleeping right now?
    4) Aux “has” + verb (past participle)
  • a.  The boss has read the report.
  • b.  Has the boss read the report?
    5) Modal “should” + aux “have” + verb (past participle)
  • a.  He should have read the report.
  • b.  Should he have read the report?
    6) Modal “could” + aux “have” + aux “been” + verb (present participle)
  • a.  She could have been working then.
  • b.  Could she have been working then?

For declarative sentencesOpens in new window that do not have an auxiliary verbOpens in new window, a modalOpens in new window, or copular be, the rule of subject-aux inversion is not applied to form a yes/no question. Instead, an appropriate form of the auxiliary verb do is placed at the beginning of the sentence.

This process of adding do to a sentence is referred to as do insertion or do support. The auxiliary do allows the speaker to express tense differences, as 7a) and 7b) illustrate.

StatementYes/No QuestionTense
7a)  He runs every day.Does he run every day?simple present tense
7b)  He ran every day.Did he run every day?simple past tense

In British English, sentences with the main verb have (not the auxiliary verb have) also undergo subject-aux inversion to form yes/no questions, as shown in 8b). But in American English, do insertion is used instead, as shown in 8c). This is an important difference that learners of English should know.

  • 8a)  You have a pencil.
  • 8b)  Have you a pencil? → subject-aux inversion (British English)
  • 8c)  Do you have a pencil? → do insertion (American English)

Positive and Negative Yes/No Questions

Yes/no questions are either positive, as in 9a), or negative (i.e., they contain not), as in 9b).

  • 9a)  Are you coming?
  • 9b)  Aren’t you coming?

Positive yes/no questions usually do not imply any expectation about what the answer will be. The person who asks 9a), for instance, does not necessarily have any idea whether the answer will be yes (I am coming) or no (I am not coming).

Negative questions, on the other hand, are generally asked to confirm a specific expectation or assumption on the part of the asker, as in 10).

  • Susan to Alice: Didn’t John tell you that I was coming?

Susan may ask Alice the negative question in 10) because she assumes, initially, that John would have told Alice that she was coming, and she wants to confirm that John did, in fact, tell her.

If Susan notices that Alice seems surprised when she shows up, her initial assumption may change to something like “It looks like John didn’t tell Alice that I was coming, after all.” She may still, however, ask the same negative question to find out if her new assumption is correct.

  • Susan: Didn’t John tell you that I was coming?
  • Alice: No. He didn’t.
  • Susan: Well, if he forgot, I’m sorry. I was sure that you would be expecting me.

Thus, regardless of what Susan’s expectations/assumptions are as she meets Alice, she asks a negative question in order to confirm those expectations/assumptions.

Negative yes/no questions are formed by contracting the verbal element at the beginning of the question (auxiliary verb, modal verb, or copular be) with not. This is shown in 12).

Positive Negative
12a)  Have you been here before?Haven’t you been here before?
12b)  Will you agree to those terms? Won’t you agree to those terms?
12c)  Were they feeling better? Weren’t they feeling better?

Negative yes/no questions can often express annoyance, as in 13a), or disappointment, as in 13b), when it seems that the asker’s previous expectations or hopes have not been met.

  • 13a)  Can’t you ever give me a simple answer?
    (Implication: I want a simple answer, but apparently you can’t give me one.)
  • 13b)  Haven’t you called him?
    (Implication: I really hoped that you had, but it appears that you haven’t.)

Negative questions that contain positive polarity items, like someone, somebody, and already, are posed when the asker expects a positive answer.

  • 14a) Didn’t somebody call me this afternoon?
    (Implication: I’ll bet somebody did.)
  • 14b)  Hasn’t he already done that?
    (Implication: I think he has Or I was sure that he had.)

A negative answer (no) to either a positive or a negative yes/no question in English has the same meaning. This is shown in 15).

  • 15a) Joel: Can you come to the ceremony?
    Rich: No. (= I can’t come.)
  • 15b)  Joel: Can’t you come to the ceremony?
    Rich: No. (= I can’t come.)

Notice that an answer of no to both the question in 15a) and the question in 15b) serves to indicate that the person responding will not be able to attend the ceremony.

This is an important point for many English language learners because in some languages (e.g., Japanese, Korean, Hausa), a no answer to a negative question such as 17b) means “No, that is not correct. In fact, I can come.” and a yes answer means “Yes, that is correct – I can’t come.”

Reduced Yes/No Questions

Yes/no questions are often reduced (shortened) in informal conversation. This can be done in two ways, by the formation of elliptical yes/no questions and by the formation of declarative (or statement) yes/no questions.

Native speakers sometimes reduce yes/no questions by omitting auxiliary verbs and copular be to form elliptical statements with up-rise intonation.

Yes/No QuestionElliptical Yes/No Question
18a) Has he been talking to you?He been talking to you?
18b) Are you coming? You coming?
18c) Do you want to talk to me about it? You want to talk to me about it?
18d) Is she taking her pills regularly? She taking her pills regularly?
18e) Are you hungry? You hungry?

Declarative, or Statement yes/no questions have the form of a statement but also contain question intonation. They often difficult to distinguish from elliptical yes/no questions.

Notice that 1a) is identical to the corresponding elliptical yes/no question formed by omitting do, whereas 1b) is slightly different , the corresponding elliptical question being “You already talked to him?” The intonation in declarative questions will not always follow the up-rise pattern shown in 1a) exactly, rather it may rise slightly and be maintained over the rest of the utterance, as shown in 1b).

Declarative questins have at least three functions. They are used to:

    check information
  • a)  The food there is great.
  • b)  You’ve eaten there before?
    repeat something someone has said in order to question or confirm it
  • a)  I lost my job yesterday.
  • b)  You lost your job?
    express surprise or amazement
  • a)  I can’t believe we lost after being up by 10 points.
  • b)  You lost the game?!