Hidden Meanings in Language

Language is funny.

This post doesn’t give any helpful tips about using language, or about writing.

But I recently thought of one of many examples of how native speakers use language in a way that might seem inscrutable to new speakers.

Think of the difference between asking:

Are you cold?


Aren’t you cold?

Strangely, if the person being asked is cold, then he’ll answer “yes” to both questions.

By the way (and as I’ve mentioned before in Save the Semicolon), this isn’t true in some other languages. For example, in French, the person would answer “oui” to the first question and “si” to the second. Both would mean, “yes, I’m cold.”

But my point today goes a little deeper than the weird way that we say “yes” to both questions. My point today is about the underlying meaning of those questions.

Underlying blah blah blah?

Yeah. In both cases, the person asking wants to know whether you’re hungry, but there’s a difference.

“Aren’t you cold” implies one major thing: I think there’s a reason that you should be cold. (It’s 20 below 0 and you’re not wearing a shirt.)

But it doesn’t imply that I can actually help you. I’m just asking.

But “are you cold” does imply that I have some way to help you. It implies that maybe I have an extra pair of gloves, or a hat.

That’s an underlying meaning.

One more example:

“Aren’t you hungry?”

Someone would only ask this if there’s a reason to expect that you are hungry. Maybe it’s late in the day and you’ve skipped lunch.

Now look at the positive version:

“Are you hungry?”

“Are you hungry” doesn’t imply that there’s any special reason for you to be hungry. But it does imply that I have food to give you if you are.

Question: “Are you hungry?”

Answer: “Hmm, maybe, what do you have?”

Underlying meaning.

No one taught me this stuff, and I don’t know whether it can be found in a textbook somewhere. But somehow, it’s made it into the collective minds of people who speak English as a first language. And of course, this is just one example.

Learning a language is hard, but learning the nuances of a language is much much harder.

What other examples are there of this kind of unspoken meaning?

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