Negative Questions

Negative Questions

By Alena Lien, 

1 October 2020



Uses of negative questions in everyday English can be grouped according to two main reasons: to be formal and polite, or to show surprise.

I also explain how to answer negative questions.





Uses of negative questions


-   To be formal and polite


This is often used with "wouldn't" and "won't."



1.   To make very polite offers, suggestions, requests and invitations.


Here, you could also politely insist on offers after the initial decline.


  • "Won't you come in?"

  • "Why don't you join us for dinner?"



2.   To express opinions in a polite way.


While this is true, this can also sound like the speaker is expecting the listener to agree with them.


  • "Wouldn't new curtains make this place more cosy?"

  • "Wasn't it so lovely?"



-   To show surprise


Especially when something has not happened or is not happening. Unfortunately, these negative questions will often come across as disapproving and judgmental even if you are just genuinely surprised.


These questions often start with auxiliary verbs according to their tense, e.g. "don't" for present simple, and "haven't" for present perfect.

They can also start with question words, but "why" is more common.



3.   To be judgemental and show disapproval.


Although tone plays a big factor, usually this is what often comes across when someone uses negative questions.


  • "Why haven't you cleaned your room?"

  • "Don't you watch tennis?"



4.   To tell someone off or make a complaint.


  • "Didn't I tell you not to play in the house?"

  • "Why hasn't he fixed the door?"







5.   To actually ask why.


Again, this can come across as complaining even if you genuinely want to know why.


  • "Why don't you reply to my texts?"

  • "Why hasn't he finished his assignments?"



6.   To be genuinely surprised that something is not what you expected.


  • "You haven't eaten since last night. Aren't you hungry?"

  • "Hasn't the postman arrived? He's usually here by now"



Depending on the tone, the last sentence could come across as a complaint. If you want to make sure that it comes across as polite, just change it to the positive.


Question that is definitely polite:

  • "Has the postman arrived?"



7.   To confirm something you believe to be true.


Especially if it has been challenged or questioned.


  • "He told me he'll be at work all day. Isn't he at the office?"

  • "Eve came to visit us last week. Didn't you see her?"



Again, to be sure that you sound polite, just change it to the positive.


Questions that are definitely polite:

  • "Is he at the office?"

  • "Did you see her?"



Unless you are making a polite offer, negative questions will almost always sound disapproving and judgemental.







5.   To actually ask why.


Again, this can come across as complaining even if you genuinely want to know why.


  • "Why don't you reply to my texts?"

  • "Why hasn't he finished his assignments?"



6.   To be genuinely surprised that something is not what you expected.


  • "You haven't eaten since last night. Aren't you hungry?"

  • "Hasn't the postman arrived? He's usually here by now"



Depending on the tone, the last sentence could come across as a complaint. If you want to make sure that it comes across as polite, just change it to the positive.


Question that is definitely polite:

  • "Has the postman arrived?"



7.   To confirm something you believe to be true.


Especially if it has been challenged or questioned.


  • "He told me he'll be at work all day. Isn't he at the office?"

  • "Eve came to visit us last week. Didn't you see her?"



Again, to be sure that you sound polite, just change it to the positive.


Questions that are definitely polite:

  • "Is he at the office?"

  • "Did you see her?"



Unless you are making a polite offer, negative questions will almost always sound disapproving and judgemental.