Isn’t she wonderful?
The radio seems to be inspiring me a lot at the moment. While listening to the above Stevie Wonder classic this morning, the phrasing of the title struck me as a little odd. It might not initially seem too strange, as all native speakers at least are quite used to it. But performing the slight change of doing away with the contraction, makes it seem quite different:
Is she not lovely? Is she not wonderful?
Is it not a lovely day?
Is that not a great idea?
First of all, it now feels a lot more negative, because we can see and hear the full not. And to me, it seems a lot more like a question. When we use the normal, contracted phrase, it’s technically a question, but of course that’s not what we actually mean. What we’re basically saying is: She’s lovely. She’s wonderful. We don’t really expect disagreement. Why use a question then? And more specifically, why use a negative question?
The apparent strangeness of this structure stands out even more if you try to put yourself in the shoes of a non-native speaker unfamiliar with it. Imagine you’re still learning the basics of English, and you see this question. First, you know it’s a question because of the question mark. And you know it’s a yes/no question because it begins with is. Ok, so now you just need to know what the question’s about. she…lovely… it looks like we’re being asked if someone is lovely. Oh, and it’s isn’t, so I suppose we’re being asked if someone is not lovely (which opens up a whole other can of worms: do we answer Yes, she’s not, or, No, she is?). Looking at this question from an objective standpoint, the seemingly logical conclusion to draw is that the asker of the question thinks that the woman isn’t lovely, but has some doubts, and is looking for us to confirm this.
Which of course is the exact opposite of what it means, so why use that structure then? I think there’s a slightly roundabout logic to it, and that it’s basically a challenge to the other person to disagree with our assessment of her evident loveliness. What we’re saying is basically:
She’s lovely. Could you possibly suggest that she’s not? Is that something you could even conceive of doing? I dare you to say she’s not lovely.
It might seem a bit aggressive and defensive, but I think the idea behind the structure is that what we’re talking about seems so self-evident that any possible disagreement is equally self-evidently crazy.
At the same time though, there’s a contradictory logic going on. The question is also inviting the person to join us in agreement, simply because it’s a question. Imagine if we simply said: She’s lovely. Grammatically it’s fine, but it doesn’t make for a great conversation. It’s finite, and doesn’t invite either agreement or disagreement. But something like Isn’t it a lovely day? is inviting the other person to respond, to join in the conversation. And if we asked Is it a lovely day? it’d be strange because sounds like we genuinely want to know, when it’s quite obvious that it is a lovely day.
And finally, think about how it sounds when we ask a question like this. If we’re genuinely looking for information, our voice will go up at the end of a question:
You locked the door before we left, didn’t you?
You haven’t already eaten, have you?
But if we’re just looking for someone to agree with what we already know to be true, it stays the same:
It’s warm, isn’t it?
She’s lovely, isn’t she? / Isn’t she lovely?
And that’s because these are questions only in a strictly structural sense. In terms of meaning, they’re basically statements of fact, with a conversational invitation thrown in. And that’s something you don’t need to think about if you’re a native speaker. But, it can be quite confusing if you’re learning English.
As we’ve already looked at, a negative question can look like a genuine request for information. And question tags (the little questions we put at the end of a sentence, e.g. It’s warm, isn’t it?) are particularly confusing, even though they’re not exclusive to English. Think about it: you give someone a perfectly normal sentence like It’s warm, and then you add on a negative question (or a positive one, if the preceding statement is negative). It seems really counter-intuitive, and very commonly, learners will keep the question positive. e.g. It’s warm, is it? And then it gets really confusing because a question tag can be a genuine request for confirmation because we’re not entirely sure of something: The film’s on at 9, isn’t it? We know straight away from the questioner’s tone of voice, but that’s not always obvious to a non-native speaker, especially if they have different tonal patterns from English.
And these are the kinds of confusion English speakers will also come across when learning other languages. And that’s because a language is not simply about giving and receiving information. There are other levels to it, like conveying our attitudes, intimating subtext, and inviting people into a conversation. We can’t do that literally, because it would be too blunt, and would make conversation a lot longer. So we end up using the language in a seemingly contradictory way. Thinking about language simply in terms of What does this mean? And These words in this order must logically mean only this will only get us so far. We have to consider the context of the language and specific statements, the tone of the speaker, and so many other layers. Which is why learning a language, and really getting to a level where you’re comfortable with native speakers is such an impressive achievement, isn’t it?