Short Answer Definition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

short answers
Examples of short answers.

In spoken English and informal writing, a short answer is a response made up of a subject and an auxiliary verb or modal.

A short answer is generally regarded as more polite than just an abrupt "yes" or "no."

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

Examples and Observations

  • "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.
    (Vikram Seth, An Equal Music. Random House, 1999)
  • "The poor lass took quite a fall, didn't she? Gelfrid remarked. "Is she usually so clumsy?"
    "No, she isn't,” Judith answered.
    (Julie Garwood, The Secret. Pocket Books, 1992)
  • "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."
    (Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees. Harper & Row, 1988)
  • "Can we change? Yes, we can. Can they change? Yes, they can."
    (Oz Clarke, Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine Guide. Sterling, 2009)
  • "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."
    (Jennifer Donnelly, The Tea Rose. Macmillan, 2004)
  • "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.”
    (Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There? William Morrow, 2006)
  • "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!"
    (Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1857)

Short-Answer Patterns

"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.
(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 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 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."
(Michael Swan, Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press, 1995)

Short Answers With So, Neither, and Nor

"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 auiliary, 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."

(Collins COBUILD Active English Grammar. HarperCollins, 2003)