I realized that in that some of the languages I speak or learn, negative verbs or sentences are used when inviting someone or suggesting something. While this sounds correct and I'm definitely used to it, I want to know if there's something about negation that makes this structure common enough to appear in multiple very different languages:

"Why don't we have lunch?"
"Won't you have lunch with us?"

"Δεν πάμε για φαί?" - ('Δεν' negates the verb 'παμε') Translated strictly, this means 'We don't go for food?"

"昼ご飯をたべませんか。" - What do you say to having lunch with me? Negative form of the verb is used here, so strictly translated this also maps to "Won't we eat lunch?

So what is it about negative statements and negated verbs that makes them used in suggestions and invitations across different languages like this?

  • Without the negation, the sentence could not be interpreted as a suggestion, cf. Why are we having lunch?, Thus, the answer to the question may simply be that the negation has to be included in order to ensure that the speech act is interpreted as a suggestion rather than as a polar question. Jun 15, 2020 at 11:27
  • @TimOsborne Disclaimer: I really have very little knowledge in the field. Those invitations can also be phrased as "Should we have lunch?" or "Will you have lunch with us", and the second of these is even as idiomatic as the negative version. So it doesn't seem to me like it's [i]necessary[/i] to negate, it just works if you do. Which is unexpected when I think about it. It's a negated verb used to suggest the positive action....
    – anon
    Jun 15, 2020 at 12:14
  • I think you are right. There's is more to it than my comment suggests. Jun 15, 2020 at 16:31
  • 3
    Robin Lakoff has written extensively about politeness and the use of negative elements. The basic idea is denigrating the speaker and honoring the addressee. Negative questions contain presuppositions of desire and intention that can be communicated nicely by ritual.
    – jlawler
    Jun 16, 2020 at 17:04
  • 1
    In addition to what @jlawler says, things like negatives and conditionals also serve to add a level of distance to an utterance, which softens the tone and helps with the politeness aspect. It’s not universal, though – Chinese doesn’t do it, for example. It’s actually a surprisingly difficult concept to explain to someone who doesn’t speak a language that has it. Jul 22, 2020 at 22:51

1 Answer 1


I can not comment due to my low reputation, so I am going to write an answer even though I do not really have one, just remarks. In my native Czech language, you can use positive and negative questions to suggest something (notice contrast to English where positive and negative questions have diferent functions):

  • Zajdeme na oběd?
  • Nezajdeme na oběd?

(both meaning Shall we go for lunch?)

@TimOsborne so both forms will be interpretted as suggestions

The positive form is fairly direct while the negative form is perceived as more tentative and it is possible to say

  • Nezajdeme třeba na oběd? (třeba = possibly)

but you can not use this třeba in the positive form of the same question.

In Czech as well as in English you can use positive and negative question forms even when not suggesting but when asking or making sure

  • Pršelo včera? Did it rain yesterday? (a real question in Czech and English)
  • Nepršelo včera? Did it not rain yesterday? (just making sure that I remember corectly)

again in the negative sentence, you can use tentative adverbs

  • Nepršelo včera náhodou? (náhodou = by any chance)

Even in this case - at least in Czech - people often go for the negative form when asking so as not to push the other person to say I don´t know

This all is really interesting because in most cases I came across when dealing with pragmatics and politeness theory, people will go to great lengths to avoid negative sentences (using rhetorical questions, avoiding direct no with yes, but, avoiding grammatical negation and using suitable adjectives instead), but in the case of negative questions this does not apply.

  • I could map all the negative phrases and their meaning to Greek as well and they are both valid and used frequently. I don't think a real answer will come up so I'm going to accept yours for now!
    – anon
    Jul 23, 2020 at 9:03

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