Scientific study of affirmative-response indicators

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My Breakfast Experiments™ aren't quite as rigorous as Mark Liberman's. He has direct access via a high-speed line to the entire Linguistic Data Consortium collection of corpora at his breakfast table, and writes R scripts for statistical analysis as if R was his native language (it may well be, come to think of it). My breakfast table has just a digital radio, a cereal bowl, and a mug bearing the legend "Keep calm and drink tea." But I'll give you some hard quantitative data for two different ways of expressing an affirmative response to a yes/no question or agreeing with a presented statement in contemporary British English. The frequency of people (especially experts) speaking to Radio 4 news programs saying "That's correct" falls in the monstrogacious to huge range (as measured by my casual early-morning impressions), while the frequency of that mode of affirmative responding in ordinary real-life conversation is roughly zero (source: vague memories of hearing people chat to each other). I hope that's rigorous enough for present purposes.

So why don't people speak to radio interviewers in a way that is at least something like the way they speak in other contexts? What can they possibly think is gained by saying "That's correct" rather than "Yes"?

Don't just type "That's correct!" in the comments box below (though I know you will). Tell me whether you've ever heard someone on the bus or in the workplace saying "That's correct" instead of "Yes". Do some counting. Me, I'm pouring another cup of tea. My work on this Breakfast Experiment™ is over.



  1. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:33 am

    The first time I encountered something like that was when I was a kid. Siddhartha Basu, the host of Quiz Time (an 80s quizzing show in India) would always say "That's correct!" or "… is correct!" or simply "Correct!" to affirm a participant-answer. It struck me then as authoritative and proper; looking back, it was probably just patronising.

    P.S. No, no one speaks like that IRL.

  2. Cam said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:52 am

    I don't think I've ever heard it informally, but may have used it myself as an emphatic when the questioner has simply re-stated my assertion with an interrogative inflection. I doubt that this would normally occur outside the workplace though; it's not the way I'd ordinarily speak to my friends.
    Incidentally, in Scots Gaelic there is no word for "yes" and to agree with an assertion, one uses "Tha sin ceart" which translates, in essence, to "that is correct".

  3. uebergeek said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    I'm not a linguist, but I have a hunch it has to do with the situation. If you're being asked questions in a radio interview, and you're an expert on the topic, the questions probably have the implied subtext, "This is how I think this works – is this correct?" I'll bet I say that sometimes to students and others who ask me questions on topics on which I have expertise. I'm not trying to sound formal or brainy; I'm just responding to what I believe to be their implied question: "is this correct?" Whether I'd actually say, "that is correct" vs "that's correct" or "that's right," I'm not sure. But somehow "yes" would not seem emphatic enough to signal that their understanding of a complex question is completely correct.

  4. Michael Newman said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:58 am

    I know it's circular, but I think part of the answer is because other people talk that way on radio interview shows and don't in casual conversation. It's a form of intertextuality and so register marking and genre construction. The non-circular source and motives for change are actually more interesting. Do people say "yes" rather than uhm hum and yeah and yup in your vague memory of casual conversation sample? My equally rigorous vague memories of American conversations have more non-yes forms than yes forms.

  5. David said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    I don't hear it all that often (Cheshire, UK), but I have noticed that certain people tend to reply 'Correct' in conversation, rather than 'Yes'. When it's repeated throughout the conversation, it does gives the impression that you are being tested and that you have passed, rather to their surprise….

  6. uebergeek said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:11 am

    Just thought of another reason the interviewees might feel the urge to be extra-emphatic. Since they're on the radio, they can't use visual cues – like big nods of the head and facial expressions – to let the interviewer know they've hit the nail on the head. Since "you've hit the nail on the head" might seem a bit too informal, the interviewee has to fish for other phrases that might be a bit more emphatic than "yes."

  7. Scott Yearsley said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:20 am

    People tend to use the Today programme to show off to their peers (as during the Thatcher years when MPs would clamour to be heard by the PM). I guess "that's correct" is their way of saying, "I am an expert. My superior knowledge of the facts leads me to state quite categorically that what you have said is correct". "Yes," on the other hand, might appear less authoritative.

  8. Electric Dragon said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:22 am

    I admit it's something I've been known to do myself. Usually when I've explained something technical to someone and they then ask me to confirm some particular implication ("so if we want to discombobulate the thingummyjig we'll need to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow in the doohickey?" "That's correct.")

  9. Carl said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:22 am

    I wonder if we could classify this is as a kind of professional argot, like how police officers will say "affirmative" and so forth?

  10. D Sky Onosson said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:28 am

    I say it IRL, but like Electric Dragon it's usually in the context of an explanation, though not always a technical one.

  11. jason said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:28 am

    You ask, "What can they possibly think is gained by saying "That's correct" rather than "Yes"?"

    I think the main reason is that people like to stall and give themselves enough time to think while they are speaking. So, a short answer becomes (almost unconsciously) physically longer that the speaker has an extra half second to think about what they are saying.

  12. maidhc said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:30 am

    The following has been stuck in my head for the last 50 years or so:

    "So, as I suspected," said Race Henderson, "we are trapped in the lair of Dr. Zoom!"

    "Zat eez gollect! Hah hah hah hah!"

  13. jason said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    When the context requires more precise speech, it also requires more thinking about one's words. Therefore, one creates vocal pauses, such as making some simple answers longer than necessary, in which to think.

  14. Simon Tatham said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:40 am

    "That's correct" has the advantage of being unambiguous in response to a negatively phrased question, avoiding the "Yes you are or yes you aren't?" problem.

  15. jason said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:52 am

    @ simon, how is it any less ambiguous? when an attorney asks, "is it not true that you were not (doing such and such)," either answers – yes, or 'that's correct' – are equally as ambiguous

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 4:53 am

    On the occasions when I've stayed in Britain for more than a few days, I've always been struck by how often people there IRL say "right" in situations where Americans would be more likely to say "yes". And they have a way of saying "right" that is sagely and thoughtful, also in a drawn-out manner that encourages the person with whom they are holding a conversation to continue speaking.

  17. Nick Lamb said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:01 am

    The below transcript shows more than one representatives from the police using "That's correct" during a hearing of the Leveson inquiry (the public inquiry chaired by Lord Leveson to investigate the British Press after numerous scandals involving unethical and sometimes criminal behaviour by journalists and editors particularly at News International)

    In some places they say "That's correct, yes" but I see no instances of "Incorrect" and when they disagree with a proposition they tend to just reply "No…"

    It occurs to me that perhaps Media Training instructs people to say "That's correct" for some reason or reasons, maybe including those given by Simon and jason above. If so, perhaps somebody who has undergone such training, or even better, who is qualified to offer it, can chime in? I don't have any media training because I do not like to be misquoted and so I never talk to journalists at all.

  18. Eric P Smith said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    I think the longer duration of “That’s correct” as against “Yes” gives it more emphasis.

    As a child with my mother I heard an American man who was accused of not doing something respond with an indignant “I did” [ɑːˈdiːˌɜːd]. I remarked to Mum that a Scot wouldn’t have lengthened the sounds and would just have said [əˈdɪd]. Mum pointed out to me that, on the contrary, a Scot would probably have lengthened the response with a different device, “I did, you know” [əˈdɪdʒəˌno].

  19. Duncan said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:19 am

    "Correct" (with or without that is, or that's), is more formal sounding (reading) in general, to my ear (eye). I think it's both that and the stalling factor others have mentioned.

    FWIW, here, I spend a lot of time on technical newsgroups and mailinglists. In groups/lists where I'm a regular, I tend to be known for my verbosity, 200 line posts aren,t unusual here at all, and for explaining the "why behind the what" along the lines of (metaphorically) teaching a person to fish instead of just giving them a fish. Within that context it's thus quite common for me to reply to the short answer someone else gave, that I agree with but wish to expand on, with something of the form:

    "Correct as far as it goes, but let me expand on it a bit."

    … or the shorter:

    "Correct but let me expand:"

    In a slightly different context, that might be "That's one possibility but let me expand", or "Possibly, but", or "That's not incorrect, but it's just one possibility of many."

    Meanwhile, I do not see "correct" as a direct replacement for "yes". I'd have to see some actual samples in ordered to tell which I'd use, but to me, "Yes" is more an appropriate answer to "Do you like ice cream?" or "Will you marry me?", while "Correct" is closer to a direct replacement for "Right", as in "That's right." "That's correct."

    And in that regard, I've been personally trying to avoid "right", because at least here, that can lead me down an internal thought path debating either the right/wrong moral aspects or the right/left political aspects, when I'm trying to avoid such thought paths and keep to a factual "correct/incorrect", regardless of any moral or political debate that I'd rather not get into under the circumstances.

    So I'd argue that the correct (USian, but with East African/Commonwealth English background growing up in the 70s) comparison should be between "Correct" and "Yes", but rather between "Correct" and "Right".

    Now it could be that people are using "Correct" where "Yes" would be more appropriate to my eye/ear as well, but I'd have to actually see/hear some samples to know. And if so, it's a phenomenon that I'm not aware of (tho I don't listen to radio much any more except for internet radio music, and no TV at all, unless you count youtube, news is almost all web-news text and still-image articles for me these days). I'll have to listen at work today and see what I hear.

    (I just read yesterday's it's/its in Barth article too, and found ANY usage of EITHER it's/its seemed unnatural, above. Now I'll be doing the same with yes/correct, all day! Fits in nicely with today's XKCD tho. =:^)

  20. Mark Liberman said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 6:05 am

    In the LDC's collection of conversational transcripts (26.2 million words), "that's correct" occurs 180 times, for a frequency of 6.9 per million, whereas "that's right" occurs 7,847 times, for a frequency of 300 per million.

    In the spoken part of the British National Corpus (10 million words), "that's correct" occurs 123 times, for a frequency of 12.3 per million; that's right" occurs 5,363 times, for a frequency of 536 per million.

    The BNC data shows, unsurprisingly, that the frequency of both in spoken collections is much greater than in other contexts:

    While "that's right" is much commoner, the frequencies of 7-12 per million for "that's correct" in conversational samples hardly mark it as arcane — some individual words in that range are strawberry, whiskey, pools, and playful.

    Some confirmation that the "correct" version is commoner on the radio (on both sides of the Atlantic) is provided by the counts from the COCA corpus, where nearly all of the "Spoken" section is from broadcast transcripts, and "that's correct" has a frequency of 25.5 per million, almost four times more common than in the LDC conversational transcripts:

    Why should that be?

    There are two fairly obvious theories, both probably correct to some degree. (1) "That's correct" is more formal than "that's right", and broadcast interviews are a more formal setting; (2) "That's correct" seems mainly to be used as response to an explicit or implicit request for confirmation; such requests do happen in normal conversation, but they're much commoner in interview situations, where the interviewer often asks leading questions in order to get the interviewee to play his or her assigned role in a dutiful fashion.

  21. MattF said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    Saying "That's correct" may be addressing a potential ambiguity that can arise in conversation. When someone makes an assertion and then says "Don't you agree?" answering "Yes" or "No" can feel ambiguous, i.e., it's unclear whether you are answering the question with "Yes, I do" or "Yes, I don't"– but answering "That's correct" alludes back to the original assertion, so it's not ambiguous.

  22. Mai Kuha said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:08 am

    To add to Duncan's point, I find "that's correct" to be a really good answer to "should I turn left here?" ("yes" wouldn't feel emphatic enough, and "right", well…)

  23. Jeremy Weatherford said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    I use "Yes, that's correct" frequently, but mainly in phone conversations, where it's harder to misunderstand it. In meatspace conversations a simple nod or "yeah" suffices. I had never thought about "that's correct" being patronizing, maybe I should keep an eye on that.

  24. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:51 am

    It seems to me that "yes" can often be ambiguous between affirmation and indication of comprehension. Perhaps "mhmm" or simply nodding is more usual as an indication to the listener that you're following their train of thought, but I feel like "yes" can also be used in this situation, whereas "That's correct" cannot, but rather must indicate affirmation of the truth conditions of the utterance.

  25. Victoria Ellsworth said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:52 am

    I hear (and use) the phrase, "That's correct," often. Then again, I work with attorneys (a profession notorious for using several words where one will suffice).

  26. Rob P. said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    In informal speech, I've only ever heard or used it in the context of directions – I turn, left here, don't I? Correct. Where the answer, "right," would confuse things.

  27. Erik said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    I say "That's correct," often in formal situations (even if it's only slightly formal, e.g., while talking to a doctor, secretary, etc.) I almost always use it on the telephone because it's much less likely to be misunderstood. And I make an extra special point of it when I'm giving directions to someone who is driving because saying "right" can lead to a helluva lot of confusion.

    (Demographics: USAmerican, grew up in the southwestern US, live in the midwestern US, overeducated, and thinks a lot about language)

  28. Tom O'Brien said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:24 am

    Here in Minnesota, we just say "You bet," or, for more formal occasions, "You betcha."

  29. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    To enlarge on the Scottish undercurrent — I was told by an Aberdonian that there was a recent survey of home languages in Scotland. If you replied "Yes" to "Do you speak Scots at home?" you were recorded as speaking English. You had to answer "Aye" to count.

  30. Laura said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    @Victor Mair
    That drawn-out 'right' in the UK can often mean 'no, you're entirely wrong'. As in, "So this paper showed that custard creams at department meetings increase staff morale." "Right, but it also showed that it severely decreases the efficiency of the group and lead to an overall 64% loss of productivity and thus negatively affecting morale."
    Someone once made a nice table of this, though it'll be hard to find.

  31. Laura said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 8:54 am

    Oh wait, here it is. It's not about 'right', though it is spot on. I expect some of it probably applies to US English too.

  32. Dan said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:15 am

    I saw my physical therapist after reading this post, and mentioned it to her because she has used "correct" a few times. She said that she got into the habit of saying "correct" because the primary meaning of "right" is the opposite of "left" in her work.

  33. rootlesscosmo said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    "That's correct" seems mainly to be used as response to an explicit or implicit request for confirmation; such requests do happen in normal conversation, but they're much commoner in interview situations, where the interviewer often asks leading questions in order to get the interviewee to play his or her assigned role in a dutiful fashion.

    I'd qualify this by suggesting that when confirmation of a factual assertion is invited, "that's correct" is fairly standard in both interview and conversation settings; when a statement of belief or opinion is offered, on the other hand, "that's right"–implying not "you have stated the facts correctly" but "I agree with the sentiment"–is more common.

  34. Mr Punch said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    My reaction is that it's remarkable how many affirmative responses there were to BBC interviewers, whose habitual approach is to put their own words in the interviewee's mouth. Responses should always begin, "No, Nigel, not exactly …"

  35. Lisa said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    My husband is a mechanical engineer (yes, I think that's relevant) who really abhors ambiguity. I often say "that's correct" or "that's right" to him in informal conversation simply to attempt to clarify the situation.

  36. Jamie said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Part of the problem may be that politicians are wary of giving simple yes/no replies to questions that do not have such a simple answer. The Today programme loves to pester them for such an answer. This means they are unwilling to give a simple yes or no response to even a completely uncontroversial question.

    "Is your name John Smith?"
    "Well, let me answer that by saying that, firstly, the other party's outdated concept of …"

  37. jk said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    I googled "monstrogacious" because of you. Nice work being the only entry that came up.

  38. Anarcissie said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:43 am

    I have used 'That's correct' and the like when 'Yes' might have seemed ambiguous, as when it means 'I heard you so far; go on.' Many simpler affirmations ('yes', 'yeah', 'right', 'uh-hunh', 'mm-hm') can be fairly ambiguous in some contexts. And in a radio program context it may be that the speaker feels an extra effort needs to be made to reach the largely remote and invisible audience.

  39. Anya said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    I only use it when being asked to confirm driving directions. "Do I turn left up there?" "That's correct." It serves the purpose noted by other responders of being clearer, and, of course, avoids the pitfalls of answering, "Right."

  40. Alyssa said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    In the nuclear power industry – and, I would assume, in other similar industries – this is extremely common. It’s a key part of the “three-way communication” that is used in areas where human error must be avoided (control rooms, etc.).
    Where this is used, the first person gives an instruction – “do [x]”. The person receiving the instruction then repeats it back exactly- “you want me to do [x].” The first person replies with “that is correct”, and only when that is confirmed can the action be taken.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 11:00 am


    I agree with you that often the drawn-out "right" can evince skepticism or even disbelief, the opposite of what the interlocutor seems to be saying.

  42. Willie said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    I have a fairly bad lateral lisp and at high-saliva moments when I know my lisp will be particularly bad, I always say "correct" or "indeed" instead of "yes". My example certainly has little to do with the expert interviewees' response in the post, but I thought I would offer it as at least one case of the circumlocution where it is completely intentional and thought-out by the speaker.

  43. Emily H. said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    I tend to use "That's correct" fairly frequently in phone conversations, but as Cam said up at the top, I tend to use it when restating information:

    "My credit card number is XXXX."
    "That's correct."

    "So, you want to schedule that move for Sunday the 29th?"
    "Yes, that's correct."

    I think it's to do with anxiety about being misheard. I used to have an awful fear of telephones.

  44. Mary Kuhner said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    In one of his books Roger Shuy analyzes a case of a Japanese person who said "Yes" meaning "I am listening" a lot, to his detriment as it was interpreted as agreement.

    My household has started to say "Hai!" (Japanese for yes) instead of "yes" or "right" or "correct" in a lot of contexts. I learned this in the dojo but it is somehow more satisfactory to us, even though it sounds too much like English "Hi!" to outsiders and causes confusion of its own. We use it, probably in gross contrast to its actual use in Japan, to mean "Yes, that's correct" or "Yes, I'll do it" and never "I'm listening."

  45. KeithB said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

    I tend to say "That's correct" on the phone to prevent ambiguity.

    Also, on another topic, interesting misunderstandings here:

    About the UC-Davis pepper spray incident.

  46. David Eddyshaw said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    I deliberately say "correct" for "right" (in the sense of "correct") at work on account of my job being one in which left/right confusion could well turn out severely career-limiting; the effect seems to spill over into saying "correct" for "yes", though that may be simple pomposity.

  47. RP said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    Something I've noticed repeatedly when watching the TV drama "The Good Wife" (more4, Thursdays in the UK) is that Alicia keeps on answering yes/no questions with two-word replies such as "I do", "I am", "it is", as if she has an aversion to the word "yes". I've been wondering if this is a feature of American lawyerese, or lawyerese in general, or just part of her idiolect.

  48. Jon said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    I wonder how much of this usage is just current fashion. A few years ago I became irritated listening to the Radio 4 news programs, because nobody seemed to say "yes" any more, but said "absolutely" instead. Maybe "that's correct" is the new "absolutely". I think we need Mark to do a rigorous analysis of the trends.

  49. Alacritas said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    While "Right" is not "Correct", I very often hear — and use — the word "right" to signify the affirmative, as opposed to using "Yes", in normal conversation. (American English speaker here, although I've heard this use of "Right" from British English speakers)

  50. tpr said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

    Some speech recognition software requires the user to say a longer phrase like yes-please in place of yes, and no-thank-you in place of no because they make the recognition task easier by providing more data for the algorithms to get a handle on. Humans find it easier to recognise longer words and phrases too and for the same reason, but this effect is only really noticeable in noisy or low bandwidth contexts like telephone calls or over analogue radio transmissions. This is the whole point of the radio call sign alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.) and other military jargon like the four syllables of affirmative in place of monosyllabic yes.

    I suspect that an intuitive understanding of this may increase the frequency of longer expressions like "that's correct" too in place of monosyllabic responses, especially when the stakes are higher. And if we speak like this when it is very important that we're understood clearly, then these expressions are going to be coupled with serious subject matter in a way that ought to lend itself to them taking on associations of formality, which derives the other main point that people have brought up about it.

  51. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

    Umberto Eco alleged in 1990 that the usage of "that's correct" in American quiz shows had introduced into Italian a widespread and deplorable habit of using "esatto" as an affirmative reply. Maybe he was right, and something similar happened in English too?

    His original argument is in the form of a satirical piece in his Secondo diario minimo, sadly if perhaps unsurprisingly omitted from the English translation.

    Come non dire "esatto"

    Infuria la battaglia contro gli stereotipi che invadono l'italiano di uso comune. Uno di questi, come è noto, è "esatto”. Lo sappiamo, tutti ormai rispondono "esatto" quando vogliono comunicare il loro assenso. L'uso è stato incoraggiato dai primi telequiz, dove per segnalare la risposta giusta si traduceva direttamente dall'americano "that's right" o "that's correct”. Quindi non vi è nulla di fondamentalmente inesatto nel dire "esatto”, salvo che chi lo pronuncia dimostra di aver appreso l'italiano solo dalla televisione. Dire "esatto" è come ostentare in soggiorno un'enciclopedia che notoriamente viene data in premio solo agli acquirenti di un detersivo.

    Per venire incontro a chi volesse liberarsi da "esatto" faccio seguire una lista di domande o asserzioni a cui oggi si risponde di solito "esatto”, e metto tra parentesi il cenno di assenso alternativo che si potrebbe invece usare.

    Napoleone è morto il 5 maggio 1821. (Bravo!) Scusi, è questa piazza Garibaldi? (Si.) Pronto, parlo con Mario Rossi? (Chi parla, prego?) Pronto, sono Mario Bianchi, parlo con Mario Rossi? (Sono io, dica.) Allora le devo ancora diecimila lire? (Sì, diecimila.) Come ha detto dottore, AIDS? (Eh sì, mi spiace.) Lei telefona a Chi l'ha visto per segnalare che ha incontrato la persona scomparsa? (Come ha fatto a indovinare?) Polizia: è lei il signor Rossi? (Carla, la valigetta!) Ma allora non porti le mutandine! (Te ne sei accorto, finalmente!) Lei vuole dieci miliardi per il riscatto? (E come mi pago il telefono sull'auto, se no?) Se capisco bene, hai firmato un assegno a vuoto per dieci miliardi e hai dato il mio nome in garanzia? (Ammiro la tua perspicacia.) Hanno già chiuso l'imbarco?! (Vede quel puntino nel cielo?) Lei sta dicendo che sono un mascalzone! (Ha colto nel segno.)

    Insomma, mi direte, lei ci sta consigliando di non dire mai "esatto".


  52. John said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

    I use 'that's correct' to avoid ambiguity as well. If the discussion involves the word 'right' in any context, I'll say 'correct'. Discussion of US politics or giving directions to a driver call for clarity.

  53. Avi said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    Once you start, you can never unhear these things.

    As Jon says, people answering "absolutely" is another radio convention. And once I started noticing, I couldn't stop.

  54. Three said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

    I have a friend who frequently uses "Correct?" to make sure that what he's saying to people is clear, e.g. "So after you simplify it, the expression is quadratic. Correct?" But the way he uses it seems like a shortened form of, "I'm correct and you'd better recognize that," instead of, "Am I correct?" It's as if he's not fact-checking; instead, he's asserting his authority. It makes him come across as really pompous even though I'm sure he doesn't mean to.

  55. Louisa said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 7:34 pm

    I wonder if part of it is to do with the different meanings that can go with 'yes' depending on intonation. Among others, there's the yes that's drawn out and raising that says 'where are you going with this?', the yes that's a little too brief and firm that says you're an idiot for asking in the first place and the starts high and falls yes that says well done for having worked out something tricky. I think sometimes in radio/ classrooms etc people are afraid that they might mis-deliver their yes and give off the wrong impression, and thus avoid it. I know I do at least!

  56. Bill Walderman said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

    Amharic has the most economical way of expressing agreement–just a short drawing of the breath.

    Do languages other than English have non-verbal utterances (for want of a better word) like "uh-huh" and "huh-uh"? And are these understood in English-speaking areas other than the US?

  57. monkeytypist said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:26 pm

    Most media trainers will tell you, when doing an interview, always respond in full sentences. In addition to avoidance of being misquoted, it also means that your quote can be played in full as a soundbite. That may be at least one factor.

  58. Michael Briggs said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:43 pm

    This is a long stretch for my old memory, but I seem remember that in Yoruba "eh-eh" is affirmative (and "ah-ah" indicates surprise).

    In formal Wisconsin speech "Yah, you betcha" is one word longer than the classic Minnesota affirmative and maybe a little more emphatic.

    And, as one who speaks American lawyerese, I really like "yes" and "no." I'd be rich if I had a dollar for every time I've heard a judge tell a witness to stop saying "uh-huh" or "mm-hmm."

  59. Daniel Barkalow said,

    April 23, 2012 @ 10:56 pm

    In informal conversation, I expect that, if I just say, "yes", and the audience misses it, we will have further exchanges leading to fixing the situation. That's not possible if a member of the radio audience misses what you said, so it's worth excess verbiage to produce a response which is less likely to be missed or misunderstood. I don't think it's so much ambiguity as susceptiblity to noise.

  60. BenHemmens said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 2:45 am

    1) why..?
    a) Probably because we've all picked up a radio, if not Radio 4, register from listening to the radio since childhood.
    b) It it has a function, I suggest it's because speaking in audio recordings /on the radio has a stronger tendency for end focus than other registers. I'm translating a pile of voiceover material just now and find myself regularly adding some blah to the beginning of sentences. Blah blah blah POINT. Yes: ba. That's correct: Bam-ba-BAM. Possibly also a lead-in to every piece of information was easier to understand when radios hissed and crackeld more.
    2) what do they think …?
    They don't. It's subconscious.

  61. Chaon said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 4:25 am


  62. Nathan Myers said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    I note that "OK" originates as an abbreviation for "all correct", which when kids say it means, precisely, "leave me the hell alone".

    When I say "that's correct" I'm generally expressing surprise or suspicion.

  63. Zubon said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 7:12 am

    Bill Walderman: Do languages other than English have non-verbal utterances (for want of a better word) like "uh-huh" and "huh-uh"?
    See "un" and "unn" in Japanese.

  64. Martin J Ball said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    @Nathan – you'll find considerable controversy as to the origin of OK. I'm not sure that the "all correct" proposal is the current frontrunner!

  65. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 7:59 am

    Chaon's sentence reads:

    Nǐ shuō de méicuò 你說的沒錯, which Google Translate renders idiomatically as "You're right." Translated more literally, however, it means "what you said is not wrong / incorrect". It is often shortened to just méicuò 沒錯 ("not incorrect / wrong", i.e., "right").

    If you put "You're right" into Google Translate and turn it back into Chinese, you get nǐ shuō de duì 你说得对, and if you convert that back into English, you get "You're right." Translated more literally, nǐ shuō de duì 你说得对 means "you've spoken correctly; what you've said is correct".

    Thus Google Translate *correctly* recognizes that nǐ shuō de méicuò 你說的沒錯 ("what you said is not wrong / incorrect") and nǐ shuō de duì 你说得对 ("you've spoken correctly") both mean "you're right".

  66. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 8:19 am

    Now I finally get a chance to ask a question that I've long wished to have answered. Namely, a New Zealander and his German wife whom I knew many years ago both had a peculiar mannerism whereby, when holding a conversation with someone else, they would abruptly suck in air at the two sides (left and right) of their almost closed lips. It was an inward kind of hissing that signaled a sort of surprised agreement. I often wondered which of them learned it from the other. I subsequently met a few Germans, especially older women, who had exactly the same mannerism, so I presume that my New Zealander friend acquired this trait from his German wife.

    My question is this: should the inward hissing that indicates surprised agreement be considered idiosyncratic, or does it exist fairly widely among certain segments of the German speech community?

  67. BenHemmens said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    Victor, I've never come across it and I've been around quite a bit in the German-speaking regions south of the Danube. Maybe "real" Germans aka Piefke (they are the people who speak "Piefkinesisch") do it.

  68. Steve F said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    @Martin J Ball: the origin of OK has certainly been controversial in the past, but I understood that its derivation from 'all correct' (or rather from the deliberate comedy-misspelling 'Orl Korrect') in the presidential campaign of Martin van Buren in 1840 is not just the 'current front runner', but has been pretty much generally accepted in recent times. I believe Allan Walker Read should be credited with the discovery.

  69. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    @Giacomo Ponzetto: If esatto is the cognate of exact, I think that if Eco had been serious, he might have blamed some Romance languages as well as English.

    I could tell the paragraph of alternatives was humor even though I know only a few words of Italian (there's a subject for linguistic research—what are the detectable non-semantic characteristics of humorous writing, or did I just recognize an obvious humorous topos?), so I put it through Google Translate. I was surprised that it translated "Mario Rossi" as "John Smith", but after a moment, I was impressed. I was less impressed that it translated "Mario Bianchi" as "John Smith" too, which makes that sentence nonsense. But what should it have done? "John Jones"? "John Doe" and "Richard Roe"?

    Here's a cleaned-up version of the Google Translate result, with some help from an on-line dictionary, for my fellow non-Italian speakers.

    Napoleon died May 5, 1821. (Bravo!) Excuse me, is this the Piazza Garibaldi? (Yes.) Hello, am I speaking with John Doe? (Who's calling, please?) Hello, this is John Doe, am I speaking with Richard Roe? (That's me, go ahead.) Then I still owe you ten thousand lire? (Yes, ten thousand.) The doctor said AIDS? (Yeah, sorry.) You called Who Has Seen Them? to say that you met the missing person? (How did you guess?) Police: Are you Mr. Smith? (Carla, the suitcase!) So you do not wear panties! (Did you realize at last!) You want ten billion in ransom? (And how else I can pay for the car phone?) If I understand correctly, you signed a bad check for ten billion and gave my name as security? (I admire your perspicacity.) You've already closed the pass?! (You see that little dot in the sky?) You're saying that I am a scoundrel! (Bull's-eye.)

  70. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    @Bill Walderman & VM — Swedes answer a question affirmatively by inhaling an "Ah!". The proper response to "Talar du svenska? is "»»Ah»»". (I know there's an IPA symbol for inhaling, but I've forgotten it.) You also affirm a negative question with "Jo" and a positive question with "Ja".

  71. Alen Mathewson said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    My initial thought on reading this post was that IRL in the UK we tend to use 'that's correct' when we don't dispute the veracity of another's statement, but do dispute it's relevance. A quick search of google uk gets 80,000 hits for 'that's correct' of which 70,000 are for 'that's correct, but' which would seem to support this view.

  72. Mark F. said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

    Radio does not love monosyllabic utterances.

  73. Joseph F Foster said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    re RP (#47)'s question about things like I am, it is, they have…. as affirmative responses instead of "Yes", Heard the program mentioned I haven't but this is very characteristic of Anglo-Welsh, which despite the name is a Welsh influenced dialect of English, not an English influenced dialect of Welsh. Welsh (like Scots Gaelic mentioned by another commenter) has no word for "Yes" and that is the usual type of affirmative reply in Welsh. Carried over into many Welshmen's English it has. As has the puttind of a predicate noun, adjective, or participle first. Familiar with the character Alicia I am not, but I wonder whether she might be Welsh.

  74. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    @Dan Lufkin

    I've spent a fair amount of time in Sweden, and — now that you mention it — I do recall clearly that I've heard this inhaling sound of expostulation, and that I did link it in my mind with the inward hissing I described in my previous comment. To this day, however, I still don't know quite what to make of either of these sounds, and whether to consider them as linguistic phenomena.

  75. a George said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

    @Giacomo Ponzetto: in the 1960s Cesare Polacco played a detective “l’infallibile Ispettore Rock” in Italian TV ads (Carosello) for Brillantina Linetti. Invariably the ultra short stories ended *) with a particular dialogue “Lei è proprio un fenòmeno Ispettore, non sbaglia mai!!” – “Non è esatto, non ho mai usato la Brillantina Linetti”. As early as this, were American quiz shows known in Italy? But perhaps Eco did not watch Carosello.

    *) until they tagged his afterthought concerning shaving on to it.

  76. Army1987 said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 6:22 am

    On reading “two different ways of expressing an affirmative response to a yes/no question” I thought about yes/no vs. ‘short answers’ such as No, it isn't or Yes, I am (in Ireland even just it isn't or I am). (FWIW, I prefer the latter, as the former can be ambiguous: if asked “Do you know if they're there?”, would no mean ‘I don't’ or ‘they aren't’?)

  77. miss_ada said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 6:45 am

    76 Comments and nobody mentioned "Clockwise" ?
    This 1986 movie with John Cleese has the recurring joke of John Cleese answering "right" in the situation Mai Kuha already mentioned, in the car, with the driver inquiring "should I turn left here" ….
    I watched that movie in german as kid, and they must have despaired translating it, as "rechts" (=right as a direction) can't be used as an affirmative in german. So they let him say "Recht so" (=all right) which still didn't make a lot of sense in the car scenes. I remember my father kindly back-translating it for me into english, but alas, as soon as you're trying to explain a joke: with my proud four-years-of-highschool-english, I was still baffled: "then why isn't he just saying "that's correct"?"

  78. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    @Jerry Friedman and @a George,

    This may be going far off topic, but the first Italian TV quiz show was Lascia o raddoppia, which ran from 1955 to 1959. Wikipedia reports it was the Italian version of the American show The $64,000 Question, coming to Italy via the French version Quitte ou double?

    The American connection is reinforced by the fact that the host of that quiz show was Mike Bongiorno: an iconic TV personality for the following fifty years, the subject of another famous satirical piece by Umberto Eco (Fenomenologia di Mike Bongiorno), and an Italian-American.

    I'm several decades too young to have seen that show, but it's highly likely that Bongiorno would greet a correct answer with "Esatto!" I am pretty sure that is considered one of his stereotypical utterances, jointly with "Allegria!"

    Hence, I suspect Eco was serious in attributing the usage of "esatto" to TV quiz shows, probably thinking implicitly of Mike Bongiorno in particular—I feel it's still difficult to think about Italian quiz shows without thinking of him in particular, and I dare say it was impossible in 1990.

    Whether the ultimate source is in fact an American "That's correct”, and whether a parallel development might have occurred in English, I cannot say.

  79. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:01 am

    @Victor — The Swedish inhaled »»Ah»» is a genuine shibboleth to Swedes in the little Talar du svenska? (Do you speak Swedish?) scenario. I've experienced it many times.

    Swedes like to think of Swedish as a sort of secret code that no foreigner would ever bother learning, except maybe in an emigrant family. It took several months for my colleagues there (back in the 60s) to come to grips with the fact that I, a self-professed American, could understand everything they were saying around the coffee-break table.

    Another linguistic give-away is what you say reflexively when you accidentally drop something.

  80. a George said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    @Giacomo Ponzetto: I suspect that you and Eco are absolutely right. I remember Mike Bongiorno, and the “Quitte ou double” did indeed pervade Europe in those years. The other thing is that “ispettore Rock” was set in what was probably an American setting, a thing that would not appear strange to an Italian audience accustomed to dubbing of the dialogue by well-known actors.

    As an aside and one of those personal comments that provides the flesh (not the bones) of Language Log: Denmark had this quiz as well, but we were poor, and the maximum amount was puny compared to $64,000 – a mere Danish kroner 10,000. This was about 2.5% of the American sum! But this was poor, war-stricken Europe.

  81. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    @a George:

    The maximum winning for Lascia o raddoppia was ₤ 5,120,000, which was about $8,200 or 57,000 Danish kroner in the late fifties.

  82. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Those interested in Mike Bongiorno and esatto might like a blog post about La parola del giorno: esatto, which does give Bongiorno "credit", as far as I can tell.

    @GKP: Oh yeah, there was a question. I do say "That is correct," "That's right," etc., especially to my students, just to be a little silly. I also use it occasionally to a friend, who picked up expression of that type from a friend of his, who picked them up while working with security guards who used (yes) radios a lot; all these people also say things such as "Copy."

    Next: "You are correct, sir" from Johnny Carson's time on The Tonight Show?

  83. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    Dan Lufkin: "Another linguistic give-away is what you say reflexively when you accidentally drop something."

    Pray expand! I'm dimly remembering Goffman's argument in "Response Cries" that these are not as unconscious or automatic as we make them out to be, but I've never heard of any real investigation into them.

  84. Chandra said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

    @Bill Walderman: Do languages other than English have non-verbal utterances (for want of a better word) like "uh-huh" and "huh-uh"?

    If I remember correctly, in Nepali you can express affirmation by saying /ã/, while negation is expressed by /ahã/ (which is extremely confusing as it sounds so much like "uh huh"). And these are what I think you mean by "non-verbal", as in not the standard, formal way to express these concepts.

    The confusion is further complicated by the fact that the Nepali body language for "yes" involves a sideways figure 8 head wobble that looks more like "I'm not sure… maybe, but probably not" rather than "yes" to Westerners.

  85. Dan Lufkin said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    @Rod J — Hmm, I know how unreliable introspection can be, but I personally believe that I don't reflexively use interjections in any language I never dream in. If I say "Zut alors!" it's for conscious effect, but "Pech!" when I spill something comes from someplace else.

    I'll go read Goffman on the subject. I'm a great admirer of his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and my eldest son credits the availability of that book in our home library for his success in later life in the world of finance.

  86. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:04 pm

    Dan: It's in Forms of Talk, I believe.

  87. Michael Straight said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    1. The fair comparison has to be informal telephone conversations rather than all informal conversation.

    2. What I notice is that people on the phone tend to use very informal versions of the affirmative, "Uh-huh," "Yeaah," "M-hm." I don't think I say, "Yes" very often because it seems weird and stilted when I deliberately do it navigating one of those speech-recognizing voice-mail systems which (I would guess) relies on that 's' to distinguish it from a "no."

    So my theory is people are used to using language that seems too informal for a radio interview and they over-"correct."

    3. Alternate theory, maybe "yes" seems too short and indistinct when you imagine your words going out over the radio. Maybe "That is correct" is the functional equivalent of saying "Yankee Echo Sierra."

  88. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

    @MIchael Straight: One difference from phone conversations is that on the phone you know whether the other person is hearing you all right, but on the radio you can be sure that some people are listening in noisy or distracting environments. This may support your theory 3 and things many other commenters have said.

  89. Bill Steele said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 8:16 am

    Michael Straight's point 3: This is why the military uses "affirmative."

    And given the problem of being understood in noisy places, what are people doing with "No?"

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