Short answers in English

(Using and forming short answers in English grammar)

Table of contents – short answers

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Short answers
  2. Forming of short answers
  3. Typical replies to courtesy questions
  4. Further explanations and exercises

When are short answers used?

Short answers are responses that contain a pronoun (which is the subject) and a verb. Although they occur frequently, they are not a peculiarity of the English language, as they may also be used similarly in other ones. However, English requires the use of such short answers to establish an adequate level of kindness or politeness and to evade the possibility of sounding rude or even offensive. Shortened answers are, therefore, also a stylistic device of spoken language (verbal means of communication) comparable to question tags. Consider the details of their use in context:

  • Note: Answers with only one word (for example, ‘yes’ or ‘no’) can quickly be perceived as harsh and too direct and should be avoided. Examples of polite answers/variants:
    • Question “Are you our new colleague from London?”
    • Short answer “Yes, I am.”
      • A sole “Yes.” would be too short and not very polite.
    • Question “Have you ever been to France?”
    • Short answer “Yes, we have.”
      • The short answer is common here too.
    • Question “Didn’t you use to drink a lot of coffee?”
    • Short Answer “Yes, I did, but now I prefer tea.”
      • This shortened answer states additional information in a supplementary part of the utterance.

How are short answers formed?

The formation of short answers and hence the grammatical aspect offers two crucial points: First, the auxiliary verb that has already been present in the question also appears in the short answer. This rule applies to the vast majority of occurrences, although individual cases such as interrogatives with the purpose to offer something are excluded from it. Second, the adaption of the personal pronoun used may be necessary. Now compare the formation in detail:

Auxiliary verbs (do, be, have, …)

  • The auxiliary verb found in the question sentence must be used in the short answer and also bear the same tense:
    • Do you come from Italy? – Yes, I do.”
      • Do’ is employed in the question and the short answer.
    • Have they invited you? – Yes, they have.”
      • Here, ‘to have’ is used in both sentences.
    • Could he sell his record collection at the flea market yesterday? – Yes, he could.”
      • Here, the question sentence contains the modal verbcan’ in the past tense. This verb is required in the short answer accordingly.
    • Were they at the party too? – Yes, they were.”
      • The main verbto be’ has a particularity: It does not need an auxiliary verb and stands in the question as well as the short answer. In this example, it appears in the past tense.

Personal pronouns (I, you, we, they, …)

  • The personal pronouns utilised are also included in the short answer. If there is a noun in the question, it must be replaced by the corresponding pronoun in the response. Careful with the direct address in the 2nd person: In this event, ‘you’ must be replaced by ‘I’ or ‘we’. Examples:
    • “Is Barbara going to visit you? – Yes, she is.”
      • The person represented as the noun Barbara becomes ‘she’ in the short answer; the following sentence is not possible and wrong:
        • Incorrect “Yes, Barbara is.”
    • “Did the house cost a lot of money? – Yes, it did.”
      • Instead of the noun ‘house’, ‘it’ is used in the answer here.
    • “Are you Tom’s friend? – Yes, I am.”
      • This statement is a direct address with ‘you’. In such a situation, the answer must be in the 1st person, and so ‘you’ becomes ‘I’.

Shortened verb forms (haven’t, didn’t, …)

  • A rule: If short answers are negative (i.e. negated), the usage of shortened verb forms is the standard (‘haven’t, didn’t, can’t’, etc.). In positive answers, however, the auxiliary verb is not shortened. In case of extraordinary emphasis, long/regular forms are used in negative responses instead:
    • “Didn’t your father lend you his car last weekend? – No, he didn’t.”
      • This reply is a negative short answer which usually contains a shortened verb form.
    • “Have you ever broken your arm? – Yes, I have.”
      • This reply is a positive answer with a verb that is not shortened.
    • “Are you going on holiday next week? – Yes, I am.”
      • Here, ‘to be’ is in a positive short answer and, thus, cannot be shortened either.

What are the answers to polite questions or offers?

Note that it is not always necessary to use the auxiliary verb of the question in the short answer. In some situations, this procedure seems somewhat inappropriate. Typical examples are questions that are interrogative sentences (in grammatical terms), but in fact, serve as requests or utterances in which the speaker offers something. In this context, compare ‘How to phrase polite questions’ for more details. Some instances for a quick illustration:

  • “Would you like some coffee? – Yes, please.”
    • Here, the speaker wants to offer something to the person he is talking to, so “Yes, I would.” would be improper. You say ‘please’ instead.
  • “Can you help me? – Yes, of course.”
    • Here, “Yes, I can.” would be very rude because it would signal that the person answering would not want to help. So, “Yes, of course.” would be suitable here.

Further explanations related to the ‘Short answers’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Using and forming short answers in English’ and may help you as well: