What part of “no” don’t you understand? Some of you may remember a song with this title released by Lorrie Morgan in 1992; others of you have probably read it on a T-shirt or two. You may have even said it yourself, or maybe someone has said it to you. It’s funny because the word “no” isn’t made up of smaller parts. Sure, there’s the consonant N and the vowel O, but by themselves, they don’t mean anything. The idea is that “no” is as simple as it gets, and if you can’t understand even that much, there’s no hope for you.
Examples of ‘Yeah, No’
But when you listen closer to the ways that English speakers use the word “no,” the picture turns out to be a bit more complicated. This becomes especially apparent when someone uses “no” right next to a word that seems to have the opposite meaning: “yeah.” Here’s an example that I collected from YouTube, through the website YouGlish, which allows you to search for specific words in their corpus of YouTube videos. In this clip, movie director Brad Bird and television producer Damon Lindelof are talking about the possibility of someone making a sequel to the movie “E.T.”
Damon Lindelof: Do I need—
Brad Bird: Thank God Spielberg has made sure that hasn’t happened.
Damon Lindelof: Yeah, no, it’s great. And it’s just—
Brad Bird: He’s protecting that one.
Damon Lindelof: If a movie was great then, and there hasn’t been a sequel by now, there probably shouldn’t be.
Lindelof shows that he agrees with Bird’s sentiment by saying “yeah,” so what is a “no” doing in that sentence?
Here’s another YouTube example. In this one, Harvard professor Michael Puett is taking questions from an audience about his lecture on Chinese philosophy.
Audience member: Sort of how do you, how do you take that jump from like hermit to joyousness?
Michael Puett: Yeah, no, it’s a great question.
In this example, it’s not even clear why Puett said “yeah,” let alone put a “no” after it.
Here’s one more example. In this one, actor Paul Scheer is being interviewed, and has been asked about some of his upcoming online shows. He’s talking about a show title that we don’t need to include in the clip, and here’s what he says:
Paul Scheer: Google that and it’s like all of a sudden a world is opened up that you can never close the door to. Um, but yeah, no, and I recently just finished doing…
Again, it’s hard to say what job the “no” is doing, and why it seems to go so well with the “yeah” right before it.
This teaming up of “yeah” and “no” has been catching the attention of linguists and writers for almost 20 years. In 2002, Kate Burridge and Margaret Florey published a paper in the “Australian Journal of Linguistics” titled, “Yeah-no, he’s a good kid,” and found that in Australian English, it was mostly speakers between the ages of 35 and 49 who said it. Adding 16 years, that would mean speakers between 51 and 65 these days. But the fact that Burridge and Florey found it wasn’t the youngest speakers who said “yeah, no” the most is interesting: It means that this collocation didn’t start with the youngest generation. That’s not usually how language change happens.
Burridge and Florey note that sometimes, using both a “yeah” and a “no” is pretty straightforward. It happens “where there is general agreement but where the response is negative.” Here’s another example from YouTube to illustrate. This is from a lecture by world traveler and skier Chris Koch, who was born with no arms or legs. In this clip, he’s answering a question from a member of the audience:
Audience member: When you travel cross country, there hasn’t been ever any need for fingerprinting or—
Chris Koch: Fingerprint… yeah, no, I haven’t had any issues.
Koch could have just answered, “No, I haven’t had any issues,” but this might have been a little confusing, because Koch is actually answering the audience member’s question with a yes. The audience member wants to confirm that Koch hasn’t had any trouble with being fingerprinted, and Koch is saying yes, this is true. So to prevent any confusion, Koch puts a “yeah” at the beginning of his response.
However, this doesn’t help us explain the other examples of “yeah, no” we heard. To tackle these, our guide will be a 2011 analysis by Russell Lee-Goldman in the “Journal of Pragmatics.” By the way, if you want to hear more about Burridge and Florey’s paper, it’s been summarized really well in an episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast from 2013.
Lee-Goldman tackles “yeah, no” by looking at the functions that “no” performs by itself, and then asking which of those functions “no” can also perform when it gets put together with a “yeah.” Of course, the most easily identified functions of “no” are to answer a yes/no question with a no, or to refuse a request or demand. However, they’re not the only ones. For example, there’s what Lee-Goldman calls turn-negotiation “no.” This is the “no” you get when two people start to speak at the same time, then stop, and one of them says something like, “No, go ahead” to invite the other one to take the next turn in the conversation. It doesn’t seem to be negating anything, but English speakers definitely do say it in situations like this.
Lee-Goldman identifies two other functions that “no” performs, and these are the ones that we find when it partners with “yeah.” What’s more, he says that both these functions actually do involve some kind of negation. The tricky part is that they’re negating something that’s unspoken.
The Misunderstanding ‘No’
One of these functions is what Lee-Goldman calls misunderstanding-“no.” The earlier example about the “E.T.” sequel illustrates this. Brad Bird is happy that Steven Spielberg has not allowed anyone to make a sequel to “E.T.” Damon Lindelof says “Yeah” to indicate his agreement, and then says, “no, it’s great.” What exactly is he negating? Lee-Goldman would argue that Lindelof is rejecting an assumption that he thinks Bird has. What is that assumption? It’s the assumption that he doesn’t agree with Bird. What reason would Lindelof have for believing that Bird thinks this? Well, maybe the fact that Bird expressed his opinion out loud. Typically, things that you express out loud are things that you think your conversation partner doesn’t already know. So with this in mind, Lindelof’s response isn’t just indicating that he agrees with Bird; he’s saying that this is an opinion he already held, not one that Bird has convinced him of.
We can analyze the example of “Yeah, no, it’s a great question” in a similar way. We’ve probably all had times when we wanted to ask a question, but were afraid it was a stupid question—especially when we’re asking that question to a well-known expert. The speaker in the clip, Professor Puett, knows that probably a lot of the members of his audience have this fear, so when he says, “No, it’s a great question,” he is emphatically rejecting the notion that the question is stupid. And as for the “yeah”? It’s not so much indicating agreement as acknowledging the question.
In fact, it seems to me that even turn-negotiation “no” can be seen as a rejection of an assumption. Both speakers are silent, each waiting for the other to speak. Each one is assuming that the other one wants to take the next turn. Saying “No, go ahead” tells your conversational partner that you don’t intend to go next, which clears the way for them to speak.
The Topic-Shifting ‘No’
The other function of “no” that Lee-Goldman identifies is topic-shifting “no.” Other words can do this, too, such as “well” and “anyway,” but “no” is more specialized. It can’t be used to shift to any old topic; it has to signal a return to an earlier topic in the conversation. Lee-Goldman provides an example of this kind of topic shift in a transcribed conversation where one conversational topic has run dry, and one of the speakers changes the subject back to something he had started to ask about earlier: baseball. He says, “But anyway, no, I was just wondering about the South Eastern Conference tournament that’s going on this weekend.”
The Serious ‘No’
Our YouTube example with Paul Scheer is another good example of topic-shifting “no.” A couple of minutes earlier in the conversation, the interviewer asked Scheer what new digital projects he was working on. Scheer talked about one of his current projects, and then went on a tangent of telling about a rather suggestive rejected title for a show. In the part we heard in the audio clip, he’s joking about the kind of results that would turn up instead of his online show, if someone were to search the internet for that title. Then, when he’s ready to get serious again, he says, “But yeah, no,” and goes on to talk more about the project. Lee-Goldman calls this serious “no,” but he observes that it’s actually just a special case of shifting the topic back to an earlier topic: It signals that we’re moving away from the current, joking topic, back to the serious version of that same topic. And as for the “yeah”? Once again, it’s just a way to acknowledge that you’ve heard what the other speaker said and are taking it seriously.
So we’ve seen two examples of topic-shifting “no,” but again, what exactly is being negated? Lee-Goldman argues that this is an even more-abstract negation. Specifically, a speaker who uses “no” to return to an earlier topic is telling the listener that what comes next is not logically connected with what came just before it.
All well and good, but why does it have to be an old topic that we shift to with “no”? Why can’t “no” be used for any subject change, the way that “anyway” can? This may just be a lingering effect from the older uses of “no” to answer a question or correct an error, because doing these things requires that “no” be tied to something that came earlier in a discourse.
Before wrapping up, we should mention another kind of situation that you may have encountered in which “yeah” is followed by a “no.” I heard a good example a couple of weeks ago, when Aardvark was enjoying a bag of salted caramel candies. He said that Squiggly really ought to try some, that the sea salt added just the right balance to the sweetness of the caramel. To which Squiggly, our beloved yellow snail replied, “Yeah…no.” This kind of “yeah, no” is not the same kind that we’ve had in our earlier examples. First of all, notice that the intonation of this “yeah, no” is very different from the other ones we’ve heard. Second, notice that this “yeah no” can stand alone as an acceptable response to Aardvark’s suggestion. It doesn’t have to be followed by a full sentence like misunderstanding-“no” and topic-shift “no” do. What we have here is basically the “yeah” of acknowledgment that we’ve already talked about, paired with the ordinary “no” that refuses a suggestion. The characteristic pause between the “yeah” and the “no” is where the speaker is considering the suggestion, or at least pretending to consider it, before arriving at the final answer of no. This snail does not want any salt, thank you!
So the power of “no” goes beyond simple negations and refusals. It can help you agree on whose turn it is to talk, push back against a misconception, and get a conversation back on track—I hope this segment has helped you know your no’s!
Burridge, K., & Florey, M. (2002). “Yeah-no he’s a good kid”: A discourse analysis of yeah-no in Australian English. “Australian Journal of Linguistics,” 22(2), 149-171.
Lee-Goldman, R. (2011). No as a discourse marker. “Journal of Pragmatics,” 43(10), 2627-2649.
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