No, Totally.

Kathryn Schulz has a nice New Yorker piece, “What part of ‘No, totally’ don’t you understand?,” that focuses on the odd affirmative use of “no” seen in this snippet of conversation:

MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.

She finds some similar examples (“No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.”) and writes:

At first blush, “no” does not appear to be the kind of word whose meaning you can monkey with. For one thing, there is its length. At just two letters and one syllable, it lacks the pliable properties of longer words. You can’t stuff stuff inside it. (You can say “unfreakingbelievable,” but you cannot say “nfreakingo.”) You can’t mangle it, à la “misunderestimate” or (the finest example I’ve heard lately) “haphazardous.” On the contrary, it is so simple and self-contained that it is a holophrasm, a word that can serve as a complete sentence.

She discusses its odd part-of-speech status and explains the four-form system English used to have (which I learned about from John Cowan), using some excellent examples:

Shoot, there aren’t any open pubs in Canterbury at this hour.
Yes, there are.

Is Chaucer drunk?
Yea, and passed out on the table.

Is the Tabard open?
Nay, it closed at midnight.

Isn’t Chaucer meeting us here?
No, he went home to bed.

When it comes to explaining the affirmative-no phenomenon, however, things get murky. She quotes unnamed “linguists I spoke with” as claiming that “this use of ‘no’ might be a response to an implicit or explicit negative in the preceding statement,” but this strikes me as so clearly wrong I’m surprised any linguist would suggest it. And “the theory I like best”—that “No, totally” is really a contraction of “I know, totally”—is just silly. But the whole thing is enjoyable and worth reading, and there’s more discussion at the Log.


  1. I believe the thought being condensed is “you’re not kidding. I would totally do that.”

  2. Il vergognoso says

    Mais oui !

  3. AJP Crown says

    Swedish (and Danish slang) also have the forms joho and nehej, which both indicate stronger response than jo or nej. Jo can also be used as an emphatic contradiction of a negative statement.

    I’ve heard Norwegian children use it amongst themselves, and once in a while so do I.

  4. I use “no, definitely” and I thought it was because it came from “no doubt” which then morphed into the stronger/more emphatic, “no definitely”.

  5. Maybe there are enough affirmative “no _____” phrases, like “no doubt,” “no kidding,” “no shit,” “no foolin'” that just plain ‘no’ could be heard as presumptively affirmative in some contexts. Kinda weird, though.

  6. MattF: Good explanation.

  7. I think that the next time I need to be emphatically negative I will say “en-freaking-oh”. After all, “en-oh” is well established as an emphatic form of no.

  8. I’ve heard “en-fucking-oh” used a few times.

  9. I actually found myself using this construction today. A friend loaned me a book on the Feldenkrais Method and then asked me what I thought of it; I replied that it was interesting though very Freudian; she said “Freudian movement training?!” and I said “No, seriously; you see… [explanation].” What happened was that she expressed doubt and my “no” was contradicting her doubt. I would like to see if many of the other examples of “No, totally” are in contexts where A has made an assertion, B has questioned that assertion, and A says “no” to counter B’s negativity and “totally” to reaffirm their original assertion.

  10. Dmitry Prokofyev says

    For what the feeling of a non-native speaker is worth, it seems to me that the no keeps its negating meaning all right. It is to negate the default setting of a dialogue wherein it’s presupposed that the sides have different opinions that they defentd. So the no in ‘no, totally’ might be an ellipsis for smth like ‘no, [I don’t object/disagree]…’

  11. That’s the best explanation I’ve heard so far; it makes sense to my native-speaker intuition.

  12. squadron leader squiffy von bladet says

    Dutch children have “nehee” and “jahaa” as emphatics, and everyone has “jawel” for the “is too!” form.

  13. a different Marc says

    I think Dmitry’s on the right track, but I also have the feeling that Speaker 2’s response is an agreement with the content of Speaker 1’s words but a disagreement with the degree of emotional investment. Speaker 2 agrees that the people should be punched, but not just punched – “totally” punched.

  14. Jan Ziesse says

    same as in german “nein, wirklich” ( no, seriously). And as Marc says it depends also as how you get the conversation.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Compare what appears to have happened to no elsewhere:

    Russian: “well” > “well, no” > “but”.
    Colloquial Polish: “well” > “well, yeah” > “yes”.

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