Learn English – Semantic difference between “if I did not want” and “if I wanted”

differencesexpressionsphrasessemantics

I was reading My Antonia and came across this line:

[She] asked me if I did not want to go to the garden with her (12)

And was wondering why Cather chose if I did not want over if I wanted. Are these two phrases the same in meaning? Is there a subtle difference between them?

For example, if I said:

I was wondering if you want to go to the park

Would that be the same as saying:

I was wondering if you don’t want to go to the park

Best Answer

Semantically speaking, there's no difference. Pragmatically, it's the way Kris describes it.

A Yes/No question (the kind that doesn't start off with a Wh-word) can go either way, because if you're asking whether it's raining, you're also asking whether it's not raining. The answer to one gives you the answer to the other. So, semantically speaking, there's no difference.

However, language is a lot more than semantics. Language is a natural, evolved, phenomenon, and like anything evolved, it doesn't waste anything redundant. So if there are two ways to do something, people will tend to find uses that take advantage of the difference.

In this case, it's an invited inference about the expectations of the speaker; or, depending on context and intent, an invited inference about the beliefs of the speaker about the listener's expectations (pragmatics can get very complicated at times, and shades off into rhetoric, politics, and religion).

Neither one of these, by the way, are grammar -- that's still a third part of language.