No, not at all.
Which is the correct answer?
Strictly, it’s No, not at all. The reason for this is that the full answer would be No, I don’t mind helping you at all. This of course logically follows a Would/Do you mind… question, but it can feel weird. In terms of meaning, it’s positive: you’re agreeing to do what the person asked you. But grammatically, it’s negative, because we’re saying that we don’t mind.
Understandably then, people answer with replies like both above. I’ve also noticed that there seems to be a British/American English divide between the types of answers. British-English speakers tend to reply with the grammatically-correct negative answer, wih the (perhaps) more straightforward grammatically-positive answer being more common in American English. This may be due to the conscious efforts in the early days of American English to streamline the language. The clearly positive nature of a Yes answer makes sense in this context. British English, on the other hand, was always more tied to its own history, and is more likely to retain strictly grammatically-correct forms to maintain tradition.
Of course all this would be much easier if we were just less polite. In the following cases, for example, there’s much less ambiguity:
Help me. OK.
Give me some help. OK.
Give me a hand. OK.
Will you help me? OK.
Can you help me? OK.
But while that’s all quite straightforward, you can also probably see the problem: none of those statements are patricularly polite. The last two aren’t so bad, but still, if they’re not spoken in a polite or friendly tone of voice, they might not come across so well.
The first three certainly aren’t polite, as they’re in the imperative voice, which we use to give orders or instructions. When you think about it, beyond recipes, we don’t use it much in English. It’s too blunt and direct, and assumes that the person will do what you want.
At least with questions we’re not assuming anything. Even so, questions like the ones above can still seem a bit rude as they’re quite short, and still need to be asked with a positive tone.
Which is why we end up with indirect questions, like:
Would you mind helping me?
Would you be able to help me?
If it’s possible, could you give me a hand for a moment please?
If you’re not too busy, would you mind helping me when you have a chance please? If it’s not too much trouble, of course.
The obvious difference between these requests and the more blunt requests/demands above is their length. We generally associate short answers and requests with rudeness in English, so if we really want someone’s help, we’ll take the scenic route to getting it. I think it shows that we’re at least willing to put some effort into making our request, as opposed to taking the shortest route possible.
Another big difference is that the focus is on the other person, not on us. They all use you at least once. It’s a simple way to show we’ve given consideration to the other person, and aren’t completely selfish.
But as we’ve seen, the downside to these longer, more complex questions is that it’s not always so obvious how to answer them. Still, the way we answer them goes a long way. If you ask someone if they’d mind helping you, and they respond with a cheerful, smiling Yes, of course!, you know that they’re not saying that Yes, they do mind. Equally, answering No, not at all with a rising tone in their voice makes it clear that they’re going to help. So while we might hesitate about which exact words to use when someone makes a request, we rarely get into misunderstandings.
But sometimes, tone can’t help us in making our answer to a question clear. Take this question, for example:
Isn’t Dave here?
Now, is the answer Yes or No? I think most people would go with No, but even then that doesn’t make things clear. Are we saying No, he’s not here, or No, he actually is here, to contradict what the person assumed? Even with yes, are we saying Yes, he is here, or Yes, you’re right, he’s not here?
The problem here again is the contrast between grammar and meaning. Strictly, we should use a grammatically-negative answer to provide an affirmative response, and vice versa. And once again, solving the problem is pretty simple.
Tone of voice doesn’t help us much, but lengthening our answer does. And just a little bit will do.
Yes, Dave’s here.
Even No, Dave is here works fine. The important information is that Dave’s here, so yes and no are actually fairly irrelevant.
Is the moral of the story then that we should generally avoid both short requests and answers in English, to make our meaning and tone clear?
Yes. Yes it is.