"Yep. Nope. Very definitely."
Kathryn Schulz, a writer for The New Yorker, heard that seemingly-contradictory response to a question recently. And once she started listening for it, she heard it everywhere: people agreeing by saying "No, totally," or "No, definitely," or "No, for sure."
In a recent article, Schulz digs into what's behind this linguistic quirk. She found out that the English language used to have more options than just "yes" and "no."
There were four options, to be precise: "yes," "yea," "no" and "nay." She writes:
" ... 'nay' was used to respond to positive statements or questions, while "no" was reserved for contradicting anything phrased in the negative.
Is the Tabard open?
Nay, it closed at midnight.
Isn't Chaucer meeting us here?
No, he went home to bed."
"Once that distinction dropped out," Schulz tells NPR's Arun Rath, "we actually created a problem for ourselves. Because now when someone asks you a question in the negative — 'Oh, you didn't like that film?' — if I say 'No,' I might be saying 'No, I didn't like that film' or 'No, you're incorrect, I loved that film!' "
And in some cases, "No, totally" makes your feelings more clear.
Click the audio link above to hear their full conversation.