Yes And No: What Do These Words Mean?

Roger Abrantes and dog.

Yes and no are two very short words yet they convey the most important information many living beings can receive, on one level regulating their organic functions on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don't require any explanation, everyone would probably agree and yet we'd be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book "Psychology rather than Power," written in 1984, I define 'yes' and 'no' in dog training for the first time. 'Yes' means "continue what you're doing now" and 'no' means "stop what you're doing now." I explain how to teach our dogs these signals and I emphasize that 'no' is not a punisher and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of 'yes' and 'no' remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two completely different ways in which dog owners and trainers were using the sound 'no.' One was as a signal as I describe; the other was as a punisher. The punisher 'no' was pronounced more harshly than the signal 'no' but was basically the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that we were talking about two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the punisher is [!+sound](no)

Using a punisher as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as.  the function of a punisher is to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration by reinforcing, Therefore, in order to increase the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain very carefully to owners and trainers that they should never use 'no' as a punisher. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two 'no's,' but we didn't want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound 'no' and an aversive. We should use any other sound (word), e.g. 'phooey' ('fy' or 'føj' in the Scandinavian languages) as a punisher. 


Why the word 'no'?

The word 'no' seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, "stop what you are doing right now." After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use this word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say 'no' properly, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn't detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself. 


The magic words 'yes' and 'no'

'Yes' and 'no' are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words 'yes' and 'no' are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). They are sometimes classified as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early English had four words: yesyeano and nay.

If you're a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view, that is. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that's a completely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in simply answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I'm afraid I will have to disappoint you. Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. Some Asian languages don't have words for yes and noLatin has no single words for yes and no. 

In computer languageyes and no appear as a succession of "A or B" conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer's CPU only needs to recognize two states, on or offyes or noone or zero for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations. 

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is in some sense a quantum computer. It looks like the universe is made of yes and no. The universe itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: "(...) everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. (...) Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer."

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our own general use of these terms. 'Yes' means "continue what you are doing right now." 'No' means "stop what you are doing right now." This is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. "Are you hungry?" The answer "yes" would result in you getting food and "no" in the opposite. "Shall I turn right? " followed by a 'yes' would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a 'no', would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to  "Did you buy rice today?" would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a 'no' would lead me to interrupt what I'm doing to go and buy  some rice. There are many other examples, but in general 'yes' prompts or encourages a continuation and 'no' does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior for our benefit. Both save energy, the most important resource for all living organisms.


Two peculiar aspects of 'yes' and 'no'

Some languages don't have words for 'yes' and 'no.' This is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and in Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way the message is communicated should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor that is so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn't want to hurt other people’s feelings, or lose face.

In terms of animal training, if a signal is "everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver" and a command "is a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations," the words 'yes' and 'no' are probably the closest we come to commands ('yes' means continue and "no' means stop and, as with most behaviors, there are not many possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).


Is "no" a bad word?

'No' is not a bad word, on the contrary it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get no as an answer is as important as getting a yes. Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words 'yes' and 'no' equally and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went to a busy store at a busy hour with busy employees and I didn't have the time or the patience to wait. I said to the employee: "I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?" 

"I have one, but it's reserved for a customer," he answered.

"What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?" I asked again.

"Yes, he is." He answered.

"Well, than that's a no right? I asked.

"Yes," he said.

Why couldn't he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.


Why don't some people like the word 'no'?

Cultural differences apart, some people don't like the word 'no' for the same reason that some dogs don't like it either: because they associate 'no' with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and punishers and they make the same mistakes which will later create problems for their children. 

Of course, parents have to yell 'no' if  the toddler is about to  stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, and creates the aversive respondent association with 'no', is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that sometimes parents go berserk and, has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word 'no' that later on, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a 'no.' This conditioning can also happen later in life to which abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, contributes to the aversive connotation of 'no.' If we have to use punishment, we should never (ever) punish the individual, we punish the behavior. Punishing the individual is what creates traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Punishing the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing the intended behavior.

The reason why some people don't like no has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversive(s) to which it was (respondently) conditioned. To change that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there's nothing wrong with the word 'no' and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word 'no' or to replace it with another, e.g. 'stop,' does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race and sex.


'No' in dog training

The signal 'no' is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs and rats, and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal 'search' by means of sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal 'no,' the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal 'direction' with a stretched arm toward the desired direction, I give the signal 'search' by means of sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal 'yes' to encourage the dog to continue searching ('yes' functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => "!±sound"};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => "!±sound"};

          ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => "!±sound"};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => "!±sound" => Dog searches => Yes,sound}; 

/* Yes,sound also functioning as "!±sound */


In languages where there are no words for 'yes' and 'no,' such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for "continue what you are doing right now" and "stop what you are doing right now." I don't useไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close toใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don't allow their dog owners to say 'no' at all in their classes. This is an option, particularly if we have a class full of bad-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn good manners before beginning training their dogs; and maybe, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal 'no' in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most crucial signals in life. Secondly we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be life threatening for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable. 

Substituting the signal 'no' with other sounds (words) such as 'stop,' or 'off' doesn't solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can't speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog's name and they yell 'come.' What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word 'come'? What's the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather then forbidding, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, in the way they use them, are not signals but punishers and by definition they will not achieve the desired result, quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals effect appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don't have words for 'yes' and 'no' and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests that there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in 'yes' and 'no,' but the emotional human brain doesn't. The universe and computers have no queries with 'yes' and 'no' perhaps because they are not emotional. Perhaps 'yes' and 'no' appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don't know. I haven't been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, 'yes' and 'no' convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.


Enjoy and don't feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.



For a more detailed explanation of the cultural and linguistic aspects of the words 'yes' and 'no,' please see my blog "The Magic Words 'Yes' and "No'" at



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