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The Questions goes:

"Kannst du nicht schwimmen?"

“___, ich kann nicht so gut schwimmen”

The choices where nein, ja, doch. Which ones are grammatically correct and what is the best answer here?

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  • An answer in German is here: german.stackexchange.com/questions/20822/… (A lot of the information is already in the question)
    – HalvarF
    Jan 15, 2023 at 11:24
  • This thread covered a lot but I can’t see any conclusive answer. Could you help in elaborating more on the correct answer? Jan 15, 2023 at 11:33
  • While being a closed question, the answers are not necessarily yes or no. Like "Do you speak English?", it can be answered "a little bit" or "just so so". It's the question that is wrong, not the answer. "Ich kann nicht so gut schwimmen" makes perfect sense and gives more information than ja, nein or doch. Jan 16, 2023 at 6:24
  • This is rather a question of logic than of the German language - as the problem is not dependant on the language you express it in
    – tofro
    Jan 16, 2023 at 13:18
  • See above comment for reason
    – tofro
    Jan 16, 2023 at 13:20

1 Answer 1

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This is a hotly debated topic between German speakers, there is no conclusive answer that will make everyone happy.

The core of the problem is that a "Nein" to this kind of question can mean two opposite things: it can either mean rejection of the statement of the whole question ("No" meaning "I can swim very well.") or consent with the negative statement in the question ("No" meaning "I am not a good swimmer."). There's a lot of people who insist that only the former is correct, but most people use "Nein" in the latter sense. This debate also exists among English speakers.

The two camps see possible answers to the question "Kannst du nicht schwimmen?" in the following way:

Camp 1 ("traditionalists"): There are two possible anwers, "nein" und "doch". "Nein" means "I cannot swim", "doch" means "I can swim". "Ja" is a strange answer that makes no sense.

Camp 2 ("logicians"): There are three possible anwers, "nein", "ja" und "doch". "Nein" means "I can swim", "ja" means "I cannot swim". "Doch" also means "I can swim".

Fortunately, the German language, unlike English, has the nice word "doch" which exclusively means rejection of a negative statement in favor of the positive opposite. So the meaning of "doch" is entirely clear here:

“Kannst du nicht schwimmen?” - “Doch" clearly means "Ich kann schwimmen.”

So with that in mind, what does "ja" mean in an answer here? Other than "yes" in English, it cannot mean "Ich kann schwimmen." - that would be either "nein" or "doch" (depending on which camp you're in), but never "ja".

Thus, "ja" is actually an unambiguous answer here, because it's not the same as "doch":

“Kannst du nicht schwimmen?” - “Ja." clearly means "Ich kann nicht schwimmen.”

So in German, if we want, we can actually answer this type of question without being ambiguous, and the recipe is avoiding the ambiguous answer "nein".

Camp 1 are still used to "nein" in that case, and they might initially stumble upon "ja". If you expand the answer with an explanation, like in your example, there is no problem with using either "nein" or "ja".

So, the diplomatic answer to your question is: strangely, both "ja" and "nein" can be used here. If "nein" is used, the additional explanatory sentence is needed to clarify. If "ja" is used, it's still polite to add the explanation, because it makes "ja" easier to understand for people who are used to "nein" for this case. "Doch" would be wrong here, because it would mean the opposite of what the explanation says.

Earlier question and answer in German on the topic

Dr. Bopp's blog on leo.org

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    Are there really people who say answering "no" to "can't you swim" means "no it's not that I can't swim, so I can swim"? This is horrible.
    – puck
    Jan 15, 2023 at 18:18
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    While the answer aptly explains the suitable answers if you want to express "ich kann schwimmen" or "ich kann nicht schwimmen", I think the question is quite a bit different, given that the pre-defined answers says "ich kann nicht so gut schwimmen". Frankly, I'd argue this makes the question unanswerable, as neither "ja" nor "doch" nor "nein" fit there. Jan 15, 2023 at 19:57
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    @puck: It depends on the situation and the way it is said, but I can indeed imagine to use "nein" there, in the sense of "no, that's not the problem here". "Warum gehst du unter? Kannst du nicht schwimmen?" - "Nein, ich kann schon schwimmen, aber da zieht ein Unterseemonster an meinem Fuß!" Jan 15, 2023 at 20:01
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    I do not think any actual speakers would ever fall into your "camp 2". If you speak like your "camp 2", that is playing games with the other person. Maybe if you're in a group of friends enthusiastic about formal logic, you can do that, but it is bad advice to give to learners. I understand that in some Asian languages, that is how people speak; but in German, the only actual use is what you describe as "camp 1".
    – wonderbear
    Jan 15, 2023 at 21:35
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    This kind of confusion exists in English too, as this (purportedly real but most probably constructed) conversation between a tower and an airplane flying holding patterns shows: (Tower:) "Flight ABC1234, do you have enough fuel or not." (Pilot:) "Yes!" (Tower:) "Yes what?" (Pilot:) "Yes, Sir!"
    – bakunin
    Jan 16, 2023 at 8:05

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