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JACK SMITH ON SUNDAY

Pussyfooting : A Query About a Cat Prompts a Plea for an Unambiguous Line of Questioning

June 04, 1989|JACK SMITH

I CAN HARDLY think of a more trivial question in grammar than whether to make an inquiry in the negative when a positive answer is expected.

The subject has been raised by a reader, Kenneth L. Perry of Newport Beach, who cites what he considers to be a common illustration: "Did you not put the cat out?"

He points out that if the answer is "Yes," the person asking the question doesn't know whether the other person put the cat out or not. The answer "No" is equally ambiguous.

Let us assume that a wife is asking the question of a husband.

Theoretically, according to grammar, if the husband answers "Yes," he means that yes, he did not put the cat out.

If he answers "No," he means that no, he did not not put the cat out. Meaning, yes, he did.

I can only say that the wife is at fault for asking such a question in the first place.

If she wants to know whether her husband put the cat out, she should ask: "Did you put the cat out?" To which he may answer either yes or no, meaning yes, he put the cat out, or no, he did not put the cat out.

I am very familiar with this problem because my wife is always asking me whether I put the cat out or whether I let the cat in. But she is usually very direct.

She either asks: "Did you put the cat out?" or "Did you let the cat in?"

In either case, I am able to answer with a simple yes or no, and no ambiguity results.

Sometimes, however, I don't know how to answer because I don't know whether the cat is in or out. If the cat is in, I don't know whether I let her in or whether she sneaked in, as usual, when I was opening the door to fetch the mail.

Similarly, the cat sometimes sneaks out when I go to fetch the mail.

So the only honest answer to her question "Did you put the cat out?" is "I don't know," which obviously is not satisfactory.

I think Perry is wrong in suggesting that the form he uses as an illustration is common.

What we usually use is a contraction: "Didn't you put the cat out?"

But that form, unfortunately, implies that one should have put the cat out and that if one didn't, one is delinquent.

Thus, such a question often produces a defensive answer, such as: "Yes, I put the cat out," even if one hasn't put the cat out.

The form is far more often used in testing matters of opinion or attitude than in questioning whether one has performed some act or duty.

We are likely to say, for example, when regarding some attractive woman in a restaurant: "Isn't she the most beautiful creature you've ever seen?"

Obviously this question means: "Is she not the most beautiful creature you've ever seen?"

But by custom, this question calls for an affirmative answer: "Yes, she is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen."

Technically, however, that answer is not responsive to the question.

The correct answer, if one wishes one's answer to agree with the intent of the question, is: "No, she is the most beautiful creature I've ever seen."

Such an answer will prompt the questioner to demand, sometimes impolitely: "What do you mean, 'No?' Is she or isn't she?"

To which his uncomfortable interlocutor can only ineptly respond: "If you mean that she is the most beautiful creature that I ever seen, yes. If you mean she is not the most beautiful creature I have ever seen, no. She is."

The most dangerous use of this form is very common among sweethearts or married persons: "Don't you love me?"

Of course that means: "Do you not love me?"

The person asked, unless he wants to destroy the moment and cast a pall over the rest of the conversation, must answer: "Yes, I do." But of course that means: "Yes, I do not love you."

If his inamorata happens to be a grammarian, he is in hot water.

Thus, I urge all persons, when talking with members of the opposite sex, to ask: "Do you love me?" rather than "Don't you love me?"

Frankly, though, I think it is far wiser to stick with: "Did you put the cat out?"

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