I've been teaching a new course in Pragmatics this year, and this past week we ended it with a discussion of this article:

Jefferson, Gail (2002) Is ‘‘no’’ an acknowledgment token? Comparing American and British uses of (+)/(-) tokens. Journal of Pragmatics 34: 1345-83.
The author was an important name in conversational analysis and an American who lived for years in the Netherlands. In Dutch, it's common to use nee 'no' as an acknowledg(e)ment token, that is, something that you say to indicate that you've heard what your conversational partner has said. A negative token, like nee, would be used to acknowledge a negative statement.

Knowing about the Dutch nee, Jefferson decided to check how no is used as a minimal response in English, but when she started looking at a set of British conversational data, what she found didn't sit well with her own intuitions about how no is used as a conversational support. To find out why, she compared four sets of data: British doctors and patients, British 'civilians' (her term), American doctors and patients, and American 'civilians'.

Jefferson found that British civilians responded to negative statements with negative tokens 86% of the time, whereas American civilians did so only 27% of the time. British doctors did it 37% of the time, and American doctors not at all. American civilians most usually responded to negative statements with positive tokens like uh-huh, yeah (both originally AmE) and mm-hmm. So, American civilians use negative tokens at similar rates to British doctors (the 10 percentage-point difference is not statistically significant), and both of these groups use it far less than in everyday British conversation.

Jefferson next looked at whether British and American speakers use these nos for different things. She found that AmE speakers use no as an affiliative token, but not as just an acknowledg(e)ment token. That is to say, if an American says no in a conversationally supportive way (as opposed to using no more literally to disagree with the previous utterance) in response to someone's negative statement, they mean to show some empathy for the situation the speaker is describing. An affiliative token tells your conversational partner that you have not only heard them, but that you understand where they're coming from (orig. AmE). For instance, if I say I hurt my back and you say Awww, you'd be showing me that you've not only heard me, but that you feel my pain, as it were. Compare that to a simple acknowledg(e)ment token like mm-hmm, which would seem rather cold to say in such a circumstance.

BrE civilians used no as an acknowledg(e)ment token, where AmE civilians would have to use a positive form. To give a flavo(u)r of how this might lead to cross-cultural misinterpretation, here's a made-up example:

Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist: No...
If this were affliation, one would interpret my no as 'I know what you mean--that Matt is pretty bad about keeping in touch'. That would be the way an AmE speaker would probably use it.

But if it were just acknowledg(e)ment, then all I'd be saying is 'I heard you say that you haven't heard from Matt'. If I meant that, though, as an American, I'd have to say it a different way:
Better Half: I haven't heard from Matt.
Lynneguist [without lifting her eyes from New Scientist]: Uh-huh.
British me would be able to say no there without tearing myself from my magazine--but American me could not.

In their professional roles, BrE doctors seem to be careful to use no only for affliliation--that is, they don't use it for mere acknowledg(e)ment. It's possible that they do not use the negative form for acknowledg(e)ment because they need to be careful not to sound like they're affiliating when they're not. In Jefferson's data, American doctors don't even use it to affiliate--though there were some differences in the types of doctors in her two corpora, so I'm going to stop short of making any hypotheses about that.

So, I asked my students, what do you think happens when these cultures meet? The British shouldn't have much of a problem in understanding the Americans' affiliative use of no, since they use it affiliatively too. But the Americans aren't used to hearing it used as acknowledg(e)ment, and so should interpret it as affiliation. If that's the case, what will they conclude about the British? One of the students came up with the same perception that I have about what happens. (I'm eager to hear yours in the comments.) It's possible that the American would feel they'd been cut off. Once someone affiliates with you, they're essentially saying 'You don't need to explain this to me because I get it (orig. AmE)'. This whole business reminded me of my troubles with the BrE use of never mind.

To tell the truth, I'd never noticed [on a conscious level] the extra nos, in conversation with BrE speakers. But I recogni{s/z}ed the accuracy of Jefferson's observations as I started to think about it consciously--and I even thought that if I were to have imitated certain English acquaintances then I'd probably have been liberal with the interactional nos. I wonder if anyone out there has had any SbaCL moments courtesy of no. Do let us know!


  1. "No" can indicate agreement and empathetic sympathy/horror that borders disbelief.
    "My dog just died."
    AmE sympathizer, not denying the truth: "No!" [Or, "Oh, no!"]
    I haven't heard "No way" recently. It could be used in a similar fashion.
    "I just got fired!"
    Sympathetic response, as if this is so improbable that it can hardly be believed: "No way!"
    In contrast, "no way" can also be used to indicate that something will never happen.
    "Think you'll ever work for that creep again?"
    Firm response: "No way, man, ain't no way."

  2. There is a great scene in Fawlty Towers where Sybil is on the phone and making a string of sympathizer comments, which go on for some time - some of these comments may, from memory, be "ooh, I know" rather than "no".

    One of the usages of "no" is with heavy irony, as in "I watched television last night"; "no! [how fantastic, etc]".

    My usual, British response to someone asking how I am, is to say "not too bad". When speaking to Americans, I am never quite sure how this response plays to them, and they usually say "great".

  3. Can we be really international and bring in the Japanese "hai" (yes). I have been told that when a Japanese person says hai (eg in commercial negotiations), they mean "yes, I've heard you" rather than "yes, I agree with you".

  4. Fascinating stuff. Think I'll show this to my students next year. I'm not very confident about my own intuitions on this but will start listening more carefully (to myself and others). We've had a fair bit of discussion of the use of 'yeah' as a first response to a wh-question ('how are you? 'yeah, I'm fine', 'what did you think of the meal?' 'yeah, it was good') and 'yeah-no' as the start of an utterance, and also recently speculated that this might connect with psycholinguistic work suggesting pragmatic principles are not active for the first microseconds of an utterance.

  5. What I've been hearing a lot lately, for negative statements requiring acknowledgment I mean, is "yeah, no." I live in the US, in Texas, but I don't think it's Texas specific - I've heard it on TV quite a bit. (Can't say I noticed that we were all doing this, however, until Language Log posted a column on it 3/3/08). Is the "yeah, no" thing happening in Britain, or is that only an American phenomenon?

  6. Yeah-no has had some discussion on Language Log, for instance here. It is found in the UK too--as indicated by Billy's comment above.

  7. Thanks for this: I teach non-native speakers and they not only bring oddities like the 'hai' as anonymous said, but also get confused about pragmatic correctness. I have also thought that Brits are misjudged by Americans because of negative affiliation.

  8. I've heard this sort of thing in BrE:

    Quidam: "I don't know if I'm right or wrong..."
    Dougal: "No, I think you're right".

  9. Excellent blog!! It is extremely interesting to me as I am a Canadian and am engaged to an Englishman. I lived in England for 3 years (just came home in Dec) and have noticed that I speak differently to people in England than I do people in Canada.

  10. Lynneguist:

    When one is Indian, the word "no@ takes an altogether different dimension, pregnant with social context and connotations of power, power distance, authority, acquiesence and obedience.

    Living in Britain is so much easier to parse for me, than my own country men and women. :-/

  11. Have you come across the 'Yes, no,' answer? I don't hear this a lot but one or two people I know use it regularly and I have found myself saying it on occasion too.

    I don't really know what it means but I think it is affiliative.

  12. Oh, should have read the comments first. ;)

  13. My feeling is that a very common use of "no" on its own in BrE is to express surprise, without disagreement, as in:
    "Eugene just passed his cycling proficiency."
    (when Eugene is well known to be wobbly on a bike).

    (This seems a little like Anne's first example above, but I don't think it's related to "Oh no!" which expresses quite a different sentiment.)

    The original statement could equally well be positive or negative. Would this be a simple affiliative use, or is it in a different category?

  14. When said in a friendly way, it might build solidarity, but it's not so much affiliating with what the person said, since it's expressing disbelief.

  15. I gotta say, I love this blog. And I, bring far from a lynguist, am actually able to follow most things.

    But for some reason, this post went zooming so far over my head that I am not even sure I actually read it.

  16. it is meant to say "Being" above and not "Bring"

  17. The BrE use of "No!" to express surprise does not indicate real disbelief - though perhaps there's an element of transparently feigned disbelief. It's a friendly exclamation, showing that the information conveyed was unexpected, and so interesting. "Well I never!" would roughly fill the same slot.

  18. Around the end of 2008, I read several reviews of a new biography:
    'The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius
    By Graham Farmelo'
    Among many examples of the strange personality quirks of this brilliant physicist was: 'When I say yes, I am acknowledging that I have heard you, not that I agree with you'. Is this a comment on the inability of his colleagues to understand the distinction - most reviewers have used it to show that Dirac was very odd, almost autistic (a common interest among scientists, as readers of New Scientist will know!).

    I can definitely think of numerous occasions in UK conversation where I might say 'No, I think you're right' - where 'No' is supporting the other person about their stance on something controversial.

  19. I'm late responding to this, but I just wanted to say, that you may soon be noticing quirks not only between the differences between Am. English and English English, but perhaps experience first-hand the oddities of a child's acquisition of English.

    With "no", my three year old is reminding me of a difficulty we had understanding my older son, because he's doing the same thing my older son did at his age. It caused more confusion the first time round and was maybe more pronounced. Let me see if I can remember it accurately. We'd ask him, "do you want this?" And he would say "no". So we would confirm, "you don't want this?" And he would say, "no". Which somehow made us think that he did want it, afterall. As I write it, I wonder if I'm remembering right, or what more there was to it. It was confusing for us, that he would answer "no" the second time, though as I write it, it is understandable so I'm wondering if I'm describing it quite right. We would expect, "Yes, that's right, I don't want it." not "No, that's right..." (BTW, we're American.)

  20. I can't say I've noticed this use of "no" in the UK, but will start listening more carefully!

    It is indeed mandatory in Japanese to make frequent aizuchi ("chiming-in" interjections). These include vigorous nodding, saying "hai" or other forms of yes, "so" (same meaning as in English), "so desu ne" ("so it is"), "honto" ("really") etc. None of this necessarily means you agree with what's being said, only that you've heard and understood.

  21. Sorry for the derail, but Robbie, I don't think 'so' in Japanese means anything close to what it means in English (besides the two words sounding pretty different to me). As far as I've noticed it's actually a lot closer semantically to 'yes' than 'hai' is, in that it indicates active affirmation and agreement, whereas 'hai' is just acknowledgement that has to be followed by something else to indicate agreement.

    Anyway, to try and get back on topic, I think in Australia we tend towards the American usage. I certainly can't imagine someone replying 'no' in the same way as 'uh huh' except maybe in a sarcastic "I already knew that" kind of way.


The book!

View by topic



AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)