sure, affirmative

This is one of those posts where I'm going to let someone else do most of the writing. I got this message from Justin a couple of weeks ago:

I’m from Malaysia, where BrE dominates in schools but AmE is prominent in pop culture (so too CanE and AusE). I was British educated there, before moving to the UK for boarding school and my undergrad. So I’d like to think of myself as pretty much a BrE speaker.

My girlfriend is American. A born-and-bred Wisconsinite. I’m currently living with her in Illinois as I pursue my Masters. This is partly the reason we so enjoy your blog, as it has helped clear up a number of differences we’ve come across.

One difference that gets me every time is the use of the word sure as an affirmative. When I use sure as an agreement, it is usually in response to a suggestion. I feel I am deferring to that suggestion, as if I am saying ‘I’ll go along with what is invariably your point’.

My girlfriend, however, uses sure as a simple ‘yes’ - whether or not it is in response to suggestion or a more general yes/no question.

So a typical interaction might go:

GF: ‘I’m feeling like having Chinese food tonight.’

*time passes*

Me: ‘So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?’

GF: ‘Sure.’

To her, she is just saying 'yes' to the question. But, no matter how much I am reminded of her usage of the word, I am still thrown off every time because it seems as if she has turned her own suggestion into mine. It feels as if she’s deferring the responsibility of the suggestion to me. I don’t mean to say that I accuse her of this - she knows how this throws me, and we laugh about it - that's just my gut reaction based on my own usage of the word.

So my question - and I do apologise for the wall of text - is whether this is a BrE / AmE difference? What scant sources I can find online - due to all the context I need to unload before asking the question - seem to hint this. However, could it be that my own usage of the word is limited through my strange background? Is this a uniquely Midwestern AmE trait (my girlfriend’s family all so seem to use ‘sure’ in this way)? Or is it a case-by-case notion, where one’s personal circumstances lead to one usage or the other?


I have to thank Justin for typing that all out because it is a scenario that plays out in my house on a weekly basis. Spouse suggests something to do, somewhere to go, something to eat, and I say Sure and he (at this point, one feels, just to be difficult, because we've been through this many times) says "That means no, then." 

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I don't think it's just Midwestern. I've lived in the Midwest, New England, Texas, and upstate New York, and my Sures never caused a discernible problem till I moved to England.

This a hard thing to look up in a (orig. AmE) run-of-the-mill corpus, because so much about a Sure  depends on how it's said. There are 198 Yea(h), sure in the AmE part of the GloWBE corpus and 91 in the British, but that's an internet corpus, not spoken interaction, and it's far more likely there that the Yeah, sure is a sarcastic expression of doubt than a casual agreement to a suggestion. While I have access to some corpora with spoken language, they're pretty bad for this kind of thing (as I discovered when I tried to use them to study please). The transcripts in those corpora are overloaded with people having conversations about topics, but in real life we spend much less time debating the issues of the day or recounting a childhood memory and more on negotiations about what to eat or veiled accusations that the dishwasher has been loaded wrong.

There are some discussions of affirmative sure online, often from English learners who have noted it as something Americans do. This Huffington Post blog has a Connecticut mother of (orig. AmE) teenagers (so, probably close to my age) noting that people are now taking her sures as unenthusiastic. But her sures were delivered by text or social media, so the intonations weren't available for the readers to hear--making it a riskier place to use sure. So was it the medium, or do younger Americans use sure less? The trend might be toward(s) more exaggerated responses needed to show enthusiasm--e.g. great, awesome, or the  less (BrE) OTT cool. And we might be pretty far down the road of that trend.

(I've done a brief search for academic papers on sure, but had no luck finding much on this affirmative usage. If anyone knows of any, please let me know.)

In our house, as in Justin's relationship, sure miscommunications remain a problem we're aware of, but haven't managed to fix. The spouse thinks I should say something else, while I wonder why he can't just mentally translate it when he hears it from me, as he would for any other Americanism that slips out. If it sounds unenthusiastic, can't an Englishman just interpret it as a case of understatement (which Brits seem so eager to claim for their own)?

But sure is harder than a problem like sidewalk/pavement or tomayto/tomahto, since it's not a referential word (one that stands for things in the world), but more context- and relationship-dependent. The differences are less obvious and the usage/interpretation is more automatic. We're creatures of our own gut-reactions.

70 comments

  1. Oh interesting. I have had a thing about "sure" for years. When my kids' friends are at my house and I offer them something with "Would you like a.....?" and they say "Sure" it both shocks and annoys me. The answer should be "Yes please" or "No thank you". "Sure" makes me feel as they're doing me a favor and it's just so rude. However, I've accepted that it isn't meant as such and that is very important.

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  2. I want to weigh in with an additional complication. (Insert evil grin here.) I'm fluent in American Sign Language as well as American English, and I've noticed a strong trend of signers using "sure" in place of "you're welcome". I think it originally came from "sure, no problem", but I see it alone more often than in the full phrase. It threw me at first, since I, like the other speakers of American here, use it to mean "yes" and "yes" is not a gracious response to "thank you".

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    1. I wouldn't take that as a complication of the situation here, since it's not English.

      To think of the ASL sign as 'sure' is to translate it into English. That's just a convenience, really, rather than what that sign *means*.

      (For others, you can see the sign here: http://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/s/sure.htm)

      So, interesting fact, but not complication! :)

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    2. In the American Midwest a frequent, informal response to "Thank you" in casual settings is "Uh-huh", or "Mmm-hmm".

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    3. Yes! My mother (born in Pennsylvania) used to murmur "Mmm-hmm" as a response to "Thank you" all the time. And now that you mention it I have to wonder where it came from. My mother was a self-effacing person, and I think I used to assume that "Mmm-hmm" was her way of diminishing the value of whatever it was she'd done for you -- the functional equivalent of saying "Not at all" or "It was no trouble." But perhaps her use of it had less to do with her inherent modesty than with the culture in which she grew up. I can say with reasonable certainty that my teenage daughter never uses either "Uh-huh" or "Mmm-hmm" as a response to "Thank you." I'm also reasonably sure that the few times I've followed my mother's example my wife (born in New York City) has expressed her annoyance -- admonishing me to say "You're welcome" instead.

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    4. Interesting. My daughter says "sure" instead of "you're welcome". I don't know where she picked it up. She didn't get it from me. (Texan expat in France)

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    5. I've heard "Uh huh", but don't use it myself (I say "no problem" or "you're welcome"), but what really grates is when someone replies with "you bet" (I think it's a midwest thing), which to me sounds like "yes, you *should* be thanking me"

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    6. Awww, I quite like that one. I (in the mid-west) have always taken it to mean "You bet I want to help you" or something like that.

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    7. I first became aware of the use of "sure" to mean "you're welcome" was when researching transcripts of conversations between American pilots and Air Traffic Controllers.

      For example:
      AIRCRAFT: "Thanks for all your help, xxxxxx Center"
      XXXXXX CENTER CONTROLLER: "Sure. Have a nice day."

      This type of exchange cropped up several times, in various locations around the USA. It stuck in my mind as I hadn't previously heard the word "sure" used in this context.

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  3. "I've done a brief search for academic papers on sure, but had no luck finding much on this affirmative usage. If anyone knows of any, please let me know."

    Sure.

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  4. If I play Justin's conversation in my head as a BrE native and put "Sure" in where he's got *time passes* then, it's like one of those "What the English really mean" clickbait things you see. They say "sure" they mean "over my dead body." It really doesn't matter what tone of voice I play it in, because it's an expression of feelings rather than action, it doesn't actually make sense to say "Yes" it needs "That sounds nice" or "I don't feel like that, can we do X instead?" Something like "Ok, I'll place the order then..." would also be acceptable. So "Sure" sounds like an both an acknowledgement you've heard but also a polite way to say "not for me thanks" without provoking a fight.

    The second one, there's a clear question to which you can answer yes/no, so "Sure" can substitute for yes or, with the right tone of voice, for no.

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  5. You've reminded me of a film interaction, where BrE & AmE speakers seem to have conflict over this use of the word, and it struck me at the time. I *think* the movie was "Last Chance Harvey" with Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, but am not positive. Anyone else remember this? Or set me straight as to the correct reference.

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  6. American Midwesterner here, mid-sixties: "Sure" used regularly to indicate "Yes, without reservation" if spoken with energy, or "Yes, that's fine with me" spoken with clear assent. "Sure" also conveys sarcasm, if the tone implies it: "She has never had any Botox". "Sure."

    To remove any confusion your girlfriend could instead respond using US military slang and answer "F---in' A", which is short for "F-ing Affirmative".

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  7. Midwest American here...in the scenario of Justin and his GF, I would also take her 'sure' as "I still want Chinese but am open to other suggestions if that isn't what you want". I have certainly used 'sure' in this manner.

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  8. My New England raised parents were taken aback by the Southern phrase "I/We sure don't".

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  9. In my AmE, "Sure" as an affirmative is shorthand for "Surely so". I think BrE has this usage "Surely so" as well for the affirmative,no?

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    1. Not sure about older BrE speakers but I (20/F) have never used sure in that sense and definitely not heard the longer variation of 'surely so' (or anything close). I take it as an agreement, but not an overly enthusiastic one. More going along with it.

      Think it would also depend on intonation, obviously if someone sounded more positive than that, I'd take it as them saying yes.

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  10. Wow, after 21 years married to a Brit and living in both our native lands, I never once thought of this usage. I just asked said husband about it and he said, 'It sounds American, but Brits know perfectly well what it means'.

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  11. Unusually for me, my instincts here seem to be entirely American. I interpret and use sure to mean 'Without question, yes'.

    [Not that I can say I sure do — except as a conscious Americanism, a stylistic trope. Nor can I say Sure! as a response to Thank you!]

    I can think of two possible explanations:

    1. The British use narrowed down to 'Yes I agree' belongs to a dialect that I don't share. (I grew up in the East Midlands.)

    2. I've acquired a specifically American use through socialising with American speakers over the years in countries where English speakers were an expat minority.

    Now here's a highly speculative idea...

    Could the 'I agree to your suggestion' sense have been triggered by the ʃ (sh) sound prominent in the word regularly used for making suggestions, namely shall?

    Coincidentally, I do have a similarly adverse reaction to a different 'Yes, definitely' expression. It's not from speakers of another dialect but from Russian speakers of English. They all too often retort Of course! in a context where it comes across to me as 'That's an unnecessary question!'

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    1. David, native American English speakers will also use "sure" as an intensifier: "She sure is pretty!"
      Your comment caused me to realize I too occasionally use "I sure do!"

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    2. I think most of my (CanE) uses and encounters with "I sure do" could also be considered a stylistic trope as you've described. It's not that it's uncommonly used, but more that it's... intentionally over-eager, perhaps? It's typically used in situations where it knowingly doesn't fit the ordinariness of the request, such as a coworker asking if you have a copy of the budget report they could borrow (or sometimes to mask that you're not feeling as polite and eager as you're letting on, such as a retail worker saying "I sure do!" when asked if she knows where to find XYZ).

      Alternatively, I might use it to bolster a child's interest in something. Adult: Do you want to go on a walk? Me: I sure do! *hoping excitement is contagious*. Otherwise, my answer would just be "Sure!".

      (And it's tonal. "Sure!" Is a genuine affirmative response, but when said with a resigned tone, it's more passive aggressive)

      (Forgive the rambling, I'm typing on my phone and its hard to go back and edit for concision)

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    3. You make an interesting observation about Russian speakers of English using "of course", David. This is them, of course, directly translating Rus. конечно (konechno). It's quite neutral in Russian as a reply to requests.

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    4. I was listening to a podcast today featuring a Syrian teenage refugee who used 'of course" exactly as you've described Russian speakers doing. I had the same thought as you about its inadvertent sense of 'of course - why are you asking me such a ridiculous question?'

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  12. For me, similar age and background to Lynne, it's tough because the meaning depends so much on tone of voice. But I think my genuine-assent version is somewhat more likely to be followed by something like "thing" or "let's." "Sure thing" feels very Midwestern to me, as though I heard it more when I was in college in Minnesota.

    But the idea that "sure" might be rude is, if I may borrow a word, "gobsmacking" to me!

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    1. I think there are slight nuances to "Sure thing", as well. I (CanE) typically hear it in response to requests for favors, not opinions.

      That is, if you asked whether I wanted Chinese food tonight, I would only use "sure", but if you had asked whether I could pick up the Chinese food on my way home, then I could say "Sure thing"

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  13. British here, mid-60s. I think having been married to an Irishman for the best part of 40 years, I find I don't have a problem with "sure" as an affirmative! "Sure", or more usually, "Surely" is very much a term of agreement for my in-laws. Having said that, of course, it does depend on the tone of voice!

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  14. The relevant subsection in the OED is

    C int.
    1.colloq. and regional (chiefly N. Amer. in later use). Used to express agreement, affirmation, or assent: certainly, of course. Frequently with yes, yeah, aye, why, etc.

    There are nine quotes dating from 1651 to 2000. Only the last three appear to express agreement:

    1963 Mrs. L. B. Johnson White House Diary 26 Nov. (1970) 11 If it had been a request to chop off one's right hand one would have said, ‘Sure’.
    1975 R. Stout Family Affair xi. 130 I'm under arrest. I asked if you could finish your lunch, and they said sure, no hurry.
    2000 D. Browne Dream Brother (2002) xvii. 278 ‘He'd like to meet you. Can he come tonight?’ ‘Yeah, sure,’ Tim replied.

    The earlier quotes express the 'that's true' senses of affirmation and assent. The earliest is apparently British

    1651 Whole Triall Mr Love 47 Att. Gen. Was Mr. Love present when this letter was read? Far. Yes sure, he was present.

    This was a fictitious transcript, but it might be interesting to search the real transcripts of real Old Bailey trials

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    1. To complete the OED subentry for sure as an interjection

      2. colloq. (orig. N. Amer.). Used sarcastically to express scepticism or incredulity. Frequently in oh, sure, yeah, sure. Cf. RIGHT int . 1.

      The most colourful quote is from Trainspotting (1993)

      The White Swan wid nivir take advantage ay a damsel in distress though, he smiles.—Aye, sure, ah sais, totally unconvinced.

      The cross reference quotes from a script for Little Britain

      Chancellor: I can assure you, Prime Minister, that if and when I have ambitions for the leadership you will be the first to know.
      Sebastian: (sarcastic) Yeah right.

      I reckon the same sarcastic intonation could be applied to any 'That's true' interjection.

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  15. On reflection, I see that there's an analogy with the way I use OK.

    If I were to follow that scenario of Justin's, that is if I were to be asked about a suggestion that I'd made earlier:

    X: So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?
    Me: OK.

    This would be a conscious move to make it seem like X's suggestion — even though we both know that it's a fiction. I might even strengthen it with a favourite of mine Twist my arm.

    The parallel is that I couldn't use it for simple assent.

    X: Are you David?
    Me: *OK.

    However, I could use it as an affirmation/confirmation in cases like this

    X: It should be 75 centimetres. Is that what you make it?
    Me: (measuring) OK.

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    1. David: Just wondering -- there are 3 distinct ways I know of that OK can be used in American English ... are all three used in British English?

      1) Agreement. This is the one use that's obviously common to both dialects. Your example illustrates it perfectly:

      X: So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?
      Me: OK.

      2) Equilibrium after an accident. Example:

      X [pounding a nail into plank and accidentally hitting thumb]: Ow!
      Me: Goodness! Are you OK?

      3) Readiness. Example:

      X [watching spouse finish packing and closing suitcase]: OK! Ready to go? Let's hail a cab and get to the airport. (Note: I believe British English has long used the exclamation Right! in this context. Is OK making inroads?)

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    2. Dick

      1) is not possible for me. I'm happy with

      X: How about Chinese food tonight?
      Me: OK.

      (i.e. agreeing to somebody else's suggestion)

      but not to mean 'Yes, that's still the case'.

      I can't speak for other BrE speakers, but I'm not aware of having heard this use of OK.

      The other two are fine and, I strongly suspect, fine for other BrE speakers.

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  16. I grew up in New Jersey. I have a good friend who grew up in Chicago who uses "sure" in this way, and my reaction is the same as Justin's.

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  17. I've changed the title of the post to 'sure, affirmative', in case I ever get (a)round to blogging about other uses of 'sure'. :)

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  18. GF: ‘I’m feeling like having Chinese food tonight.’

    *time passes*

    Me: ‘So do you still want to have Chinese food tonight?’

    GF: ‘Sure.’

    If I could, I'd like to ask Justin one thing about his "Sure" scenario: When GF says "Sure" here, is she simply saying "Yes" or is she really communicating tentative assent -- a shorthand way of saying "Well, I'm still up for Chinese food but I'm open to something else if you have a preference."

    That's the way I read "Sure" here, but I'm open to the possibility that this subtler version of "Sure" has fallen by the wayside among younger Americans.

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    1. Dick

      "Well, I'm still up for Chinese food but I'm open to something else if you have a preference."

      I would express this by

      Well, ↘↗yes.... — the fall-rise intonation signalling that the exchange is still open to discussion.

      Personally I couldn't pronounce sure with this fall-rise intonation. Sure is too definite to allow anything but a fall, probably a fall from a height.

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    2. Dick: As a 30-something AmE speaker -- yes, it still has that open to discussion flavor.

      David: Anything starting with "Well," to this AmE ear means disagreement -- your response would indicate "I don't really want to but I am willing to go along for the sake of not arguing" or something similar. ("Sure", said very flatly rather than with neutral or chipper intonation would be similar. It doesn't need the fall-rise, just high/medium/low energy.)

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    3. Hi Dick,

      Great question you have for me there, and one my girlfriend actually brought up shortly after I told her about my conversation with Lynne. To her, 'Sure' could mean either an enthusiastic 'Yes', or what you described about being open to other suggestions. That would certainly be distinguishable by intonation, though still only after I get over the momentary confusion of 'Sure' meaning assent/agreement to me.

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  19. 37 yo American. When I hear or use sure in this manner, I interpret as "sure, that's fine (but I'm open to other suggestions if you want something else)." Depending on the speaker's tone, it can definitely come off as unenthusiastic though.

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  20. Perhaps GF would be better saying 'whatever' to signify that she's not really listening...

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  21. This is highly tonal for me - 35yo Midwesterner. I'd interpret it in that scenario as either simple 'yes' or 'yes, but I'm open to suggestions' - however, in another context, depending on tone it could be sarcastic, unenthusiastic, etc. I would never interpret it the way Justin does, however, and I can't think of a scenario in which I'd consider it to be actually rude. I definitely use it as a response to 'you're welcome', wouldn't think twice about that if someone replied to me that way - to me it would mean 'sure, happy to'.

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  22. It's quite outside the strict area of this discussion but whenever I hear AmE 'sure' I think of Chinese 是 shì, which means "be", and can be used to express agreement. The Oxford Chinese Dictionary available on MacBooks has entries including this
    [used to indicate promise]
    是,我马上就去。[Shì, wǒ mǎshàng jiù qù] OK, I’ll go at once.
    是,我明白了。[Shì, wǒ míngbáile] Yes, I’ve got it.

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  23. AmE user from New England. I never gave this word a lot of thought before, I am surprised it could be interpreted as rude. It seems like such a harmless word, although hearing the explanation I suppose it does make sense why it would throw people off. The only way I'd interpret it even remotely rude is in the context of sarcasm or used dismissively as in, "Yeah, yeah sure thing, whatever." I use sure a lot, usually in the context of "Yes" or "OK, with me". Sometimes I use it as a "You're welcome" as in "Mind helping me carry this this thing downstairs?" "Sure thing, no problem."

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Its not so much that it has rude connotations and more that it just is not where my ears would expect 'sure' to be used. As other comments have noted, when it only has a meaning of assent/agreement, then hearing in response to a yes/no question just throws me off. I'm certainly not offended when I hear it, it just takes me a while.

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  24. I (BrE) have sometimes used "sure" as an affirmative, but in the context of giving permission as well as agreeing to a request. "Is it OK if I do X?" "Sure."

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  25. It seems that for some AmE speakers "sure" can signify simple affirmation whereas BrE speakers hear it as agreement or assent (the OED's three uses; thanks, David Crosbie). I've tried to think of examples of "sure" expressing affirmation that don't make me feel queasy, so far without success, and I think for me it always indicates agreement or assent. For example, as an answer to the simple "Two plus two equals four, right?" "Sure!" has a flavour of "If that's what you want it to equal".

    But it's not the word itself that causes the problem, and I don't think that tone can get round it. In Justin's dialogue the similar terms "OK", "All right" and "Fine" would be just as jarring as "Sure" since on their own they - to this BrE ear at least - also all express agreement rather than correctness. Brits, looking for a "Yes, that's correct" response in that context, hear instead a "Yes, I'd be happy to eat Chinese" when what Justin was looking for, and presumably what the GF intended, was more like "Yes, I do still want Chinese".

    I think this is another example of words that develop different shades of meaning on the two sides of the Atlantic, creating the potential for some confusion. Much of the time there would be no problem with "Sure" because agreement was both intended and understood, but at other times a Brit might sense bad manners, impoliteness or rudeness, which is Expat Mum's initial response, and mine too.

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    1. That distinction between agreement and correctness seems key, here. It appeared to me that the irritation in Justin's post was partly due to the switching of responsibility,ssuch that she was now agreeing to his suggestion rather than assenting to his proposition (if that expresses what I mean". I'm a BrE speaker in my fifties, and "Sure" has a lacklustre feeling about it, unless presented in an irritating "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, why don't we go jogging up Snowden in the rain" approach to life.

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    2. Keith

      Yes the three quotes I copied from the OED show agreement, but they represent a recent development. The earlier quotes are

      1651 Whole Triall Mr Love 47 Att. Gen. Was Mr. Love present when this letter was read? Far. Yes sure, he was present.
      1803 G. Colman John Bull i. i. 4 Den. Troth! and myself Mr. Dennis Brulgruddery was brought up to the church. Dan. Why, sure!
      1813 Sketches of Character (ed. 2) I. 83 ‘What, was Mad Ross there?’.. ‘Oh yes, sure.’
      1861 E. Waugh Birtle Carter's Tale 6 A glass ov ale. Ay, sure; yo'st have it in a minute.
      1862 M. E. Braddon Lady Audley's Secret I. xix. 298 ‘You say a blacksmith has been here?’ ‘Sure and I did, sir.’
      1914 P. G. Wodehouse Man Upstairs 133 ‘Is that a fact?’ ‘Sure,’ murmured Archibald.

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    3. Keith, you make a very good point, about the lack of alternatives. When my GF asked me what I might find less disconcerting than 'sure', and I blanked. 'OK' might suffice, though as you say it would depend on tone to make clear its not just assent. 'Mmhmm' is possible, though also a little strange to do every time such a question comes up. 'Yes' is a little stilted or formal, my GF said she'd even consider that rude of her to say. So perhaps this example was a little difficult.

      Rachel, in that scenario, the shifting of responsibility is definitely part of what throws me off. I will say that my confusion does extend to other yes/no questions that do not involved agreement/assent.

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  26. KeithD - the following exchange would perhaps be the most queasy-making.

    He: Honey, will you marry me?
    She: Sure.

    There are some questions that require a Yes / No answer!

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    1. Keith, Rachel, biochemist

      For me the the contrast you make is too stark. The only difference I recognise between sure and yes is that only yes can be objective. So yes, I do find it odd to say

      "Two plus two equals four, right?" "Sure!" .

      Odd, but not impossible. I would find it quite natural as the starting point of an argument leading from obvious basics to something more novel. It would mean 'Yes. Agreed. I'm following you.'

      I can also use sure if the question is objective but appealing to my personal knowledge.

      "Chomsky is an American linguist, right?" "Sure!"

      (The only thing I'm a bit unhappy with — in my example and yours — is the exclamation mark.)

      For a couple who have been living together for ages, and for whom marriage would do little more than simplify their financial affairs, I could imagine

      "So we'd better get married, right?" "Sure!"

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  27. I was just watching the second episode of the fourth season (series) of Endeavour and heard a usage of sure that made me think of this post.

    About an hour and 15 minutes into the episode Morse asks a woman, "Do you mind if I looked in Nick's room?" She replies, "Sure."

    She didn't mean, "Sure, I do mind," but rather "Sure, go ahead." Morse didn't have any problem understanding her reply to mean "No, I don't mind. Go ahead and look."

    I'd have said something like "No, go ahead" or "Yes, I do mind," but I wouldn't have said just "sure." I also wouldn't have said "Do you mind if I looked" but rather "Would you mind if I looked," but that's another subject.

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  28. I think she was expressing assent, and she could equally well have responded with "OK". But not "Yes", unless she actually did mind. As I said above, for me a British use of Sure cannot be a simple affirmative, the equivalent of a Yes; it can only signify assent (or agreement). And since in this dialogue the affirmative would be a strange response if she doesn't mind, and there is no statement for her to agree to, she must be assenting to Morse's underlying intent: in effect he was asking: "May I look in Nick's room?"

    Consider that if he'd asked more directly: "I'd like to look in Nick's room. Would you mind?" she would probably still have said "Sure", still answering the main 'question' about looking in Nick's room rather than the polite subsidiary one about her minding.

    We British typically use such indirect questions - or statements - in preference to being direct. When we respond to them with a Yes or No, we are generally addressing the underlying question, which we intuitively understand, rather than the surface question. For example:
    • "I don't suppose you have . . ." requires an answer to "Do you have";
    • "Didn't I tell you already?" requires an answer to "Did I tell you already?", which will often be the utterly illogical "No, you didn't";
    • "Do you have the time to help me or not?" requires an answer to the first part of the question, not the inverted subsidiary question at the end.

    Such things can confuse my Chinese in-laws and friends no end!

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    1. Interesting that you say "we British" but then say "Do you have?" and "Didn't I tell you already?", which don't sound British at all.

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    2. I stand by the "We British" generalisation that I make, and I believe my examples illustrate that generalisation, whether they are standard BrE or not. I personally prefer the more formal, polite "Do you have two tens for a twenty?" (pound notes) over the casual "Have you got two tens for a twenty?", and to a repeat-offender child "Didn't I tell you to stop doing that?" seems more likely to be effective than "Haven't I told you to stop doing that?"

      I note that I have been British for over 70 years and the language I use is a version of British English that has been unavoidably affected by geography, class and change over time, and by exposure to other versions of English through travel and working overseas, and through English writings and visual and musical entertainment from all over the place. Some of what I write may not sound British to you, but that may hint that your stereotype of BrE is too narrow. As Lynne often has to say here, matters are almost never black and white, and while it may be that my expressions are not the most common in BrE, they are nevertheless used and acceptable.

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    3. I too have been British for over 70 years.

      I now quite often now Do you have? for all senses of have. When I was younger, I would confine it to a limited range of senses e.g. Do you have a shower before using the swimming pool?

      I occasionally recognise — but don't believe I use — the distinction a shopkeeper might make:

      We do have them, Sir. But we haven't got any in stock at the present.

      For the 'stock in principle' meaning, I believe most people would now use do e.g. Do you do kitchen matches?

      I've never said Didn't I tell you already?

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    4. On reflection, I can — and sometimes probably do — say Didn't I tell you? in place of the more British Haven't I told you?

      But not in combination with already.

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    5. OK, the "already" was unwise. I think it was my attempt to make clear that "Didn't I tell you?" refers always to something specific in the past rather than the vaguer "Haven't I told you (at some time or other)?" (which is equally as indirect of course, looking for the answer to "Have I told you" and possibly finding "No, you haven't"). I have a feeling that the difference lies as much in tell and told than in didn't and haven't, but I can't put that into meaningful linguistic terms.

      Examples:
      • "Didn't I tell you not to put worms in your pocket?" Referring to a specific telling that the child should recall
      • "Didn't I tell you it was smart-casual? Oh, sorry." Referring to a specific invitation
      • "Didn't I XXX last week (or any specific time)." Referring to any action at any specific time - eg "Didn't I lend you my umbrella the last time it rained?"

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    6. Sorry: the difference lies as much . . . as and not as much . . . than.

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    7. I'm pretty sure British English is changing and moving towards AE past tense usage (Lynne?). We always used to use the perfect ("have") form in conjunction with just, already, and yet as well as in references to non-specific times in the past ("I've been to America quite a few times, in fact I went there last summer"), but you'll hear plenty of Brits, especially younger ones, now saying "I just did it" instead of "I've just done it" (etc). In fact I do it myself.

      In Keith's example of rebuking a child, I think saying "Didn't I tell you to stop doing that?" implies a tacit reference, such as "only the other day", but if there was an implied "countless times", then "Haven't I told you.." would be more usual.

      On "Do you have a pen?" vs "Have you got a pen", I think the "correct" form in Britain used to be "Have you a pen?", didn't it? Personally, I've always said "Have you got ...".

      On the question of shop stocks, I think the standard usage is illustrated by an old Bruce Forsyth joke:

      "I went into the newsagents' the other day and asked the girl behind the counter, 'Do you keep stationery', and she told me, 'Mostly, but sometimes I wiggle a bit'." Boom!Boom! (Don't think you could tell that on TV these days, though).

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    8. Zouk: "In Keith's example of rebuking a child, I think saying "Didn't I tell you to stop doing that?" implies a tacit reference, such as "only the other day", but if there was an implied "countless times", then "Haven't I told you.." would be more usual."

      My intended point exactly, to show that the usage exists in BrE in the appropriate context. Very much a diversion though!

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    9. A diversion, certainly, but definitely something that deserves examination on this blog (if it has not/did not already had/have it)

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  29. Once again I can only add a comment, not reply in line to an existing comment. Annoying, because it breaks the thread. Anyway:

    Thank you again David Crosbie for the earlier OED examples. I note that in three of them the 'sure' is reinforcing the affirmative 'Yes', 'Ay', and 'Oh yes', which leaves three where it may be a simple affirmative, the most recent being in 1914, which is before even I was born. It think that once more historic usage is not a reliable guide to current usage, particularly as there are no more recent examples, and I do not believe that today standard BrE can use a bare Sure in place of a Yes.

    Consequently I find it strange that you (DC) are comfortable with "Two plus two equals four, right?" "Sure!" and "Chomsky is an American linguist, right?" "Sure!" because with or without exclamation marks I could not say either of these. I wonder whether you are understanding the "Right?" as the now-common tag meaning "Are you still listening/are you with me so far?" when I meant it as asking whether my statement was correct. I would be interested to know whether you could answer "Sure" to "Is it correct that two plus two equals four?" and "Am I right to think that Chomsky is an American linguist?", because I certainly cannot if I am intending to affirm the statements.

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    1. I couldn't Reply at first, but I fixed it by reloading the page.

      I think we should avoid the term affirm — you, the OED and I may well be using it in as many as three slightly different senses.

      Instead, I propose this three-way analysis of the use of yes and its near-synonyms.

      1. OBJECTIVE yes
      'I acknowledge the unquestioned truth of what you've said'

      2. SUBJECTIVE yes
      'I subscribe personally to the truth of what you've said'
      (either continuously or for the immediate purpose of argument)

      3. INTERACTIVE yes
      'I concur with the attitude and purport of what you've said.'

      It's a question of where you draw the line. I (together, it seems, with most Americans) draw it between [1] and [2]. You (together, it seems, with many Brits) draw it between [2] and [3].

      I suspect that both of us would draw the line between [2] and [3] for another near-synonym: certainly.

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  30. I find this very jarring in BrE: "You're back. Is it cold out?" "Sure." I wonder whether that would be valid for any AmE speakers.

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    1. As a BrE speaker, I think I might reply, "Sure is!" but I'd be doing it parodistically American for humorous purposes.

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    2. I (AmE) do not think I would choose that usage unprompted. My response to that might be, "Yup, sure is." "You have no f-ing idea!", "Darn skippy", or any of a variety of other colloquialisms, but I don't think a bare "Sure" would work for me.

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  31. Thinking about this again, the interpretation of Justin's exchanges with his GF might depend on who normally does the cooking and who brings in the money to pay for takeaways. So, if Justin is really asking "Are you still prepared to part with significant quantities of your hard-earned cash to save me the trouble of my usual chore?", then "Sure" sounds good to me (but then why take the risk of asking again?). If, on the other hand, it means "Do you still want me to spend significant quantities of my hard-earned cash on a takeaway rather than get off your arse and cook?", then the reply "Sure" comes across quite differently to me. Justin's reaction suggests the latter circumstance, doesn't it? Or is it all the same to American ears?

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    1. Zouk, haha, I assure you that neither scenario is true in this regard, and that theres no deeper reading into our circumstances necessary. My confusion is really just to do with her using a word I associate with agreement/assent in answer to a question that does not require agreement/assent but rather confirmation.

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  32. Er ... perhaps that should be "[...] rather than you getting off [etc]"

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)