By Sarah Binning

The opening song of the classic television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is cleverly and artfully catchy. Which is as any theme song should be. The tune always manages to put a smile on my face, no matter how foul my mood is.

“So let’s make the most of this beautiful day/ Since we’re together, we might as well say/ Would you be mine?/ Could you be mine?/ Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Wait a minute, Fred Rogers. “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Won’t is a contraction for “will not” (Side note for the word’s Old English etymology: wonnot = will not. This explains why there’s not ‘i’ in the contraction).

So what Mr. Rogers is really saying is “Will not you be my neighbor?”

That doesn’t sound right at all … Doesn’t the man who has a never-ending supply of shoes want to say “Will you be my neighbor?”

One of my readers posed an interesting question. She wants to know why our culture says “won’t” when we really mean “will.”

Examples:

Won’t you tell me the answer?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Won’t you get the door for me?

A response of “yes” can have either a negative or positive connotation, depending on one interprets the question.  Won’t you be my neighbor? Yes. Wait … Does that mean you will or you won’t?

These questions are in a negative interrogative form. When used, they generate strong biased responses. The speaker is bias in favor of a particular answer. The speaker has already decided how he or she would like you to respond. (Yes, I’d love to live next door to you Mr. Rogers. Maybe we could share sweaters?) When one uses a negative interrogative question, he or she is suggesting a response as opposed to asking a real question.

Won’t you tell me the answer à what we’re really saying is “you should tell me the answer.”

Won’t you get the door for me à please, get the door for me?

In addition to “won’t” there are other examples of negative interrogative:

Didn’t I tell you this would happen?

Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

Let’s see if we can’t finish this before 3:00.

Let’s see if we can’t win this game.

Fine! See if I won’t!

Allow me to elaborate on my “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself” example. If we reconstruct this sentence to a simple sentence it becomes: “Are you ashamed of yourself?”

Notice the subtle difference?

“Are you ashamed of yourself?” à this is noncommittal. The speaker doesn’t anticipate the outcome one way or another. Whereas “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself,” leads one to believe the speaker anticipates the person HAS something to be ashamed about.

Now that we understand the purpose of negative interrogative questions, shan’t we return to Mr. Rogers. I can only conclude that when Fred asks “Won’t you be my neighbor?” he really mean “Will you be my neighbor … because you should be my neighbor. My puppets and I make the best neighbors and you would consider yourself lucky to have such pleasant company.”

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