The Yes-No Question in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The words

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A yes-no question is an interrogative construction (such as "Are you ready?") that expects an answer of "yes" or "no." Also known as a polar interrogative, a polar question, and a bipolar question. Contrast with wh- question.

In yes-no questions, an auxiliary verb typically appears in front of the subject--a formation called subject-auxiliary inversion (SAI).

Examples and Observations

  • Homer: Are you an angel?
    Moe: Yes, Homer. All us angels wear Farrah slacks.
    (The Simpsons)
  • "Directing a movie is a very overrated job, we all know it. You just have to say 'yes' or 'no.' What else do you do? Nothing. 'Maestro, should this be red?' Yes. 'Green?' No. 'More extras?' Yes. 'More lipstick?' No. Yes. No. Yes. No. That's directing." (Judi Dench as Liliane La Fleur in Nine, 2009
  • Principal McGee: Are you just going to stand there all day?
    Sonny: No ma'am. I mean, yes ma'am. I mean, no ma'am.
    Principal McGee: Well, which is it?
    Sonny: Um, no ma'am.
    (Eve Arden and Michael Tucci in Grease, 1978)

Three Varieties of Yes-No Question

  • The yes-no question is found in three varieties: the inverted question, the typical exemplar of this kind; the inverted question offering an alternative (which may require more than a simple yes or no for an answer); and the tag question:
    Are you going? (inversion)
    Are you staying or going? (inversion with alternative)
    You're going, aren't you? (tag)
    The inverted question merely inverts the subject and the first verb of the verb phrase of the corresponding statement pattern when that verb is either a modal or an auxiliary verb or the verb be and sometimes have. The question itself may be positive or negative:
    She is leaving on Wednesday.
    Is she leaving on Wednesday?
    . . . A positive question appears to be neutral as to the expected response--yes or no. However, a negative question seems to hold out the distinct possibility of a negative response.
    Are you going? Yes/No.
    Aren't you going? No.
    (Ronald Wardhaugh, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)

    The Use of Yes-No Questions in Polls and Surveys

    • "There are many different ways to format questions on a survey. Let's say you want to measure people's attitudes toward premarital sex. You could ask a simple yes-no question:
      Are you in favor of premarital sex?
      ___ Yes ___ No
      Or you could use a Likert-type scale where the question is phrased as a statement." (Annabel Ness Evans and Bryan J. Rooney, Methods in Psychological Research, 2nd ed. Sage, 2011)

      "Typically, pollsters ask questions that will elicit yes or no answers. Is it necessary to point out that such answers do not give a robust meaning to the phrase 'public opinion'? Were you, for example, to answer 'No' to the question 'Do you think the drug problem can be reduced by government programs?' one would hardly know much of interest or value about your opinion. But allowing you to speak or write at length on the matter would, of course, rule out using statistics." (Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)