The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Roger Abrantes and Dog

'No' is a signal. It means 'stop what you are doing.' It is not a punisher (photo from the EI archives).

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’m going to have to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely answer questions with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no, but you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question: Danish and Swedish (ja, jo, nej), Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), French (oui, si, non), German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages,  it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not mean yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไมใช่ (maichai) mean “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไมหิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs are used instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est).  We can also use adverbs: itavero, etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

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. 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’

As we have seen, 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.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least bit interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use คฺรับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgement.  However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, or that they will comply.

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.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”

The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”

A colleague of hers smiles and checks. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully-booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”

“No ‘but’, you can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat and that’s what I asked for. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says with a smile, plainly not understanding my remark based on linguistics/logic.

“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Upgrade it on the card, please. Thank you.” I smile to her in an attempt to reinforce her for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking availability on the next flight.

“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have just answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information, if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined is exasperating.

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 use ไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (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.




16 comments on “The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

  1. Appendix to “The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

    At first sight, the excellent article (in my opinion) of Laura Van Arendonk Baugh “Should You Use No Reward Markers (NRM)? Examining the Debate”* looks like conflicting with my own “The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’,” but as soon as we transcribe her ‘clicker language’ into classic learning terminology, we discover that it does not. The signal ‘no,’ as I describe it, has nothing to do with ‘no reward markers.’

    She writes: “The No Reward Marker is usually described as ‘conditioned extinction,’ as its intention is to inform the learner that no reinforcement awaits down the path he is considering.” She adds “By the time an NRM has real meaning for the learner, it has become positive punishment.” 

    First, let’s transcribe the text into classic learning language: reward = reinforcer; extinction should be extinguisher (like reinforcement and reinforcer); I’d substitute ‘intention’ with ‘function’ (the classification of operants depend on function/result, not intention); ‘effects a real meaning’ means ‘changes the behavior’; ‘the path he is considering’ should be ‘he/she’ (keep smiling) even though I personally find it linguistically ugly.

    Baugh is right. A NRM is a positive punisher because (when) it decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior when presented simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place.

    Baugh writes: “My dogs have learned if I say “shoo” while I’m at the computer, I’m not available to play, while at other times a nose poke might elicit attention. In this situation, “shoo” is a signal that future offered behaviors will not be reinforced.”

    Again, Baugh is right: her “shoo” is an SΔ (S delta), a stimulus that conveys to the receiver that no reinforcer is available for a particular behavior (or class of behaviors). It is not a punisher (no NRM).

    Baugh writes: “Some trainers use NRMs not only to shape a new behavior, but to indicate any mistake a learner makes, including a failure to respond properly to a cue (no response or an incorrect response). For example, if a trainer sends a dog to select a scented object from a collection and the dog retrieves the wrong one, the trainer might say “oops” as the dog picks up the incorrect object.”

    What is the function of the ‘oops?’ If it is to decrease (to decrease to zero means to extinguish) that particular behavior, then it is a punisher (a mild one, a low intensity one, but still a punisher, in which case NMR is just another name for punisher).

    The signal ‘no,’ as I describe it, means “(…) stop what you are doing right now” and “(…)  it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. ” Consequently, this “no” is not a punisher, it is an SD (discriminative stimulus) as for example ‘sit,’ or ‘come.’ It signals “there is (probably) a reinforcer waiting for you if you display a particular behavior” (in this case stopping to display a behavior). 

    Baugh quotes Ramirez: “I frequently discourage [novice] trainers from ever conditioning a ‘no’ signal, because if there is not a signal for ‘not’ it cannot be overused.” In that, I’ll agree with both of them, but then again that has nothing to do with the signal ‘no’ in itself, rather with the way some people use it. A pen can be used to write beautiful poetry and love letters as well as terrible insults and suicidal notes, but that doesn’t detract from the function of the pen (to write), or its value (some would say).

    Bottom line: Baugh is right and after transcribing her ‘clicker-terminology’ into ‘classical learning terminology,’ we can see that there is no conflict between her article and mine. On the contrary, they are perfectly compatible. Her article has nothing to do with the signal ‘no’ as I describe it. We are just talking about two different things. Baugh is talking about a (disguised) punisher and I’m talking about a signal (which might appear as a punisher due to psychological, cultural and educational reasons). 

    Have a great day and thanks for reading,



  2. Pingback: Hiérarchie – Théorie de la dominance : Blog Educateur Canin

  3. Pingback: Muzzle Grab Behavior in Canids | Roger Abrantes

  4. Pingback: The First Ten Skills You Should Teach Your Puppy | Roger Abrantes

  5. Pingback: Unveiling the Myth of Reinforcers and Punishers | Roger Abrantes

  6. Pingback: Canine Ethogram—Social and Agonistic Behavior | Roger Abrantes

  7. Pingback: 16 Things You Should Stop Doing In Order To Be Happy With Your Dog | Roger Abrantes

  8. Thank you for writing this article. I’m sick and tired of being told that telling a dog “No” is abusive because it’s positive punishment. Even if you don’t yell it or follow it up with a correction. It’s just a word. ANY word can become a fearful thing depending on how you use it. “No” doesn’t have to mean impending doom for a dog.

  9. Pingback: A Dog’s Self-Respect | Roger Abrantes

  10. Pingback: Dogs And Children | Roger Abrantes

  11. Pingback: 16 cosas que debería dejar de hacer para tener una vida más feliz con tu perro | Roger Abrantes

  12. Pingback: Dog Training—Let Reason Prevail Over Force! | Roger Abrantes

  13. Pingback: I fell in love with a .... *gasp* - Page 10 - Poodle Forum - Standard Poodle, Toy Poodle, Miniature Poodle Forum ALL Poodle owners too!

  14. Pingback: 為了讓你跟狗狗可以快樂地在一起 “16件別再這麼做的事情” | Roger Abrantes

  15. Pingback: Combattre la Dominance

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s