What Is a Short Answer and How Is It Used?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In spoken English and informal writing, a short answer is a response made up of a subject and an auxiliary verb or modal. Short answers are brief but complete—they can answer "yes or no" questions or more complicated queries.

Conventionally, the verb in a short answer is in the same tense as the verb in the question asked. Also, the verb in the short answer should agree in person and number with its subject.

Examples of Short Answers

Short answers can appear in just about any context. The following examples are all from literature—study them to better understand how short answers look and sound in conversation.

An Equal Music: A Novel

"'How did she do in her exams?' Maria had already told me she had done quite well, but I was now flailing around to keep the conversation going.

'She passed.'

'She is all right, isn't she?'

'Yes, she is,' he replied firmly," (Seth 2000).

The Secret

"'The poor lass took quite a fall, didn't she?' Gelfrid remarked. 'Is she usually so clumsy?'

'No, she isn't,' Judith answered," (Garwood 1992).

The Bean Trees

"You're asking yourself, Can I give this child the best possible upbringing and keep her out of harm's way her whole life long? The answer is no, you can't," (Kingslover 1988).

Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide 2005

"Can we change? Yes, we can. Can they change? Yes, they can," (Clarke 2004).

The Tea Rose

"'Will, you've been in love before, haven't you? I mean, with Anna, of course ... and your various ... well, you have, haven't you?'

Will looked into his glass. 'No. No, I haven't,'" (Donnelly 2007).

Anybody Out There?

"'What's up with him?'

'His stomach is sick. He's nervous about his speech.'

'He's got food poisoning!' Helen declared. 'Hasn't he?'

'No, he has not!'

'Yes, he has.'

'No, he has not'!'

'Yes, he has,'" (Keyes 2007).

Little Dorrit

"'No, I won't, Jeremiah—no I won't— no I won't!—I won't go, I'll stay here. I'll hear all I don't know and say all I know. I will, at last, if I die for it. I will, I will, I will, I will!'" (Dickens 1857).

Short Answer Patterns

The structure of a short answer is important. Without a subject and an auxiliary verb, a short answer is not a full answer. However, a short answer does not need to entirely restate a question. Because they often lack a main verb, they are technically not complete sentences. Writer and language expert Michael Swan explains this further in the following excerpt.

"Answers are often grammatically incomplete because they do not need to repeat words that have just been said. A typical 'short answer' pattern is subject + auxiliary verb, together with whatever other words are really necessary.

Can he swim?
Yes, he can.

"This response is more natural than Yes, he can swim.

Has it stopped raining?
No, it hasn't.
Are you enjoying yourself?
I certainly am.
You'll be on holiday soon.
Yes, I will.
Don't forget to telephone.
I won't.
You didn't phone Debbie last night.
No, but I did this morning.

"Non-auxiliary verbs be and have are also used in short answers.

Is she happy?
I think she is.
Have you a light?
Yes, I have.

"We use do and did in answers to sentences that have neither an auxiliary verb nor non-auxiliary verbs be or have.

She likes cakes.
She really does.
That surprised you.
It certainly did.

"Short answers can be followed by tags.

Nice day.
Yes, it is, isn't it?

"Note that stressed, non-contracted forms are used in short answers," (Swan 2005).

Short Answers With So, Neither, and Nor

Another way to shorten an answer is to use a word like so in place of part of a statement. You have likely seen and heard this many times before. The book Active English Grammar offers a description of how such words are used in short answers.

"Sometimes a statement about one person also applies to another person. When this is the case, you can use a short answer with 'so' for positive statements, and with 'neither' or 'nor' for negative statements using the same verb that was used in the statement.

"You use 'so,' 'neither,' or 'nor' with an auxiliary, modal, or the main verb 'be.' The verb comes before the subject.

You were different then.—So were you.
I don't normally drink at lunch.—Neither do I.
I can't do it.—Nor can I.

"You can use 'not either' instead of 'neither,' in which case the verb comes after the subject.

He doesn't understand.—We don't either.

"You often use 'so' in short answers after verbs such as 'think,' 'hope,' 'expect,' 'imagine,' and 'suppose,' when you think that the answer to the question is 'yes.'

You'll be home at six?—I hope so.
So it was worth doing?—I suppose so.

"You use 'I'm afraid so' when you are sorry that the answer is 'yes.'

Is it raining?—I'm afraid so.

"With 'suppose,' 'think,' 'imagine,' or 'expect' in short answers, you also form negatives with 'so.'

Will I see you again?—I don't suppose so.
Is Barry Knight a golfer?—No, I don't think so.

"However, you say 'I hope not' and 'I'm afraid not.'

It isn't empty, is it?—I hope not," (Active English Grammar 2011).

Sources

  • Active English Grammar (Collins COBUILD). HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.
  • Clarke, Oz. Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide 2005. Harcourt, 2004.
  • Dickens, Charles. Little Dorrit. Bradbury and Evans, 1857.
  • Donnelly, Jennifer. The Tea Rose. 1st ed., St. Martin's Griffin, 2007.
  • Garwood, Julie. The Secret. Pocket Books, 1992.
  • Keyes, Marian. Anybody Out There? William Morrow Paperbacks, 2007.
  • Kingsolver, Barbara. The Bean Trees. Harper, 1988.
  • Seth, Vikram. An Equal Music: A Novel. 1st ed., Vintage, 2000.
  • Swan, Michael. Practical English Usage. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2005.