English English language Etymology Grammar Usage Word origin

This usage is legit, no?

Q: Is there any grammar rule that forbids using the word “no” at the end of a question?

A: No! English speakers often end a sentence with “no?” to make it a question, especially in casual speech.

One might say, for example, “You enjoyed it, no?” to mean “You enjoyed it, didn’t you?” Notice how the addition of “no?” turns an ordinary declarative sentence into a casual question. (In fact, “yes?” is sometimes used in the same way.)

The Oxford English Dictionary says the adverb “no” is being used here as a “question tag” to mean something like “is that not so?” or “am I not correct?”

The OED labels this usage “colloquial,” meaning it’s more characteristic of everyday speech than more formal language.

Oxford’s examples of the usage are all fairly recent, dating from the 1930s. The first is from a British novel, Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street (1932):

“He was at one of those big schools, where they all live together. A public school they call it, no?”

This more contemporary example is from a 1998 article in the Independent (London): “The people who make Watchdog and Esther will now also be in charge of all the features at Radio 4—inspires you with confidence, no?”

The OED’s latest citation is from a Canadian novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), by Michael Ondaatje: “Look—the rubbish here in the halls. This is a hospital, no?”

Sometimes, Oxford says, this “no” is used “in representations of the speech of those for whom English is not a first language, corresponding to French n’est-ce pas?, Spanish no?, etc.”

This citation, from E. G. Webber’s comic novel Johnny Enzed in Italy (1945), is an example of the dialectal use: “All this us der merry laugh gives, no?”

But many native speakers of English use this question-tag “no” routinely, so if it was ever considered broken English, it is no longer.

As we mentioned, the adverb “no” at the end of a sentence is a relatively recent usage, according to the OED.

But “no” at the front is many centuries old, and dates back to Middle English. (Again, we’re talking about the adverb, not the adjective, as in “No dessert for you, young man!”)

Oxford’s earliest written citation is from “The Clerk’s Tale” (circa 1395), by Geoffrey Chaucer: “I ne heeld me neuere digne in no manere / To be youre wyf. No, ne youre chambrere.” (I never held me worthy in any way / To be your wife. No, nor your chambermaid.)

John Keats used this “no” in his obscure drama “Otho the Great,” written around 1819: “No, not a thousand foughten fields could sponge / Those days paternal from my memory.”

By now this construction is so common that it’s unremarkable. One of its more familiar variations is in the expression “No you don’t.”

The OED’s examples begin with this stagey citation from Frederic Reynolds’s comedy Fortune’s Fool (1796): “No—you don’t—you shan’t quit the room.”

We’ll conclude with the most recent OED citation, a scrap of dialog from the film script of South Park (1999), by Trey Parker and others:

Satan: I am the dark master! Kyle’s mother: Oh no you don’t!”

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