Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Already" and "yet"

It's funny how a small shade of meaning can color a whole sentence. Compare these two questions:

  • Have you taken out the trash yet?
  • Have you taken out the trash already?

These two questions mean exactly the same thing, in that the answer to one will be Yes or No exactly if the answer to the other is too.

But what comes with that Yes or No? A Yes answer to the first question means that you have met the questioner's expectations. A No means that you failed. But for the second question, it's less clear what the expectations are: does the questioner have something else they want to stick in the garbage before it goes out? Or are they heading outside anyway and wondering if they can take the trash on the way?

I like to use "already" instead of "yet" in sentences like these, because I try to keep expectations and judgements out of questions where I really am just interested in the answer. Here's another case where "already" can alleviate the tension of not meeting the asker's expectations:

  • What's your next blog post going to be about?
  • Have you already chosen a topic for your next blog post?

If you haven't chosen a topic yet, the second question is much nicer to answer.  Here are some more examples:

  • When are you going back to Europe?
  • Have you already made plans to visit Europe again?

  • Where are you going to live in Minneapolis?
  • Have you already found a place to live in Minneapolis?

(The answer to that question, by the way, is Yes! We're excited to get there and show you around like we did for this apartment.)

Let me close by saying that I don't have anything against the word "yet." In fact, I get quite a boost from appending it to negative statements about my ability:

  • I don't know any martial arts... yet.
  • I can't read French very well... yet.
  • I'm not very good at drawing... yet.

I say this about a skill even when I don't have any plans for learning it... yet!


  1. I was all prepared to make a case for tone of voice being the real offender here, but by the end, you had me convinced that the sentences constructed around "already" were much easier to present in a neutral or positive way. And skill with tone of voice is an acquired trait for me rather than a natural ability.

    1. I'm glad you were convinced! To be fair, tone of voice is also a big part of being encouraging. But I think what caused me to formulate this "already/yet" distinction was being on the receiving end of enough clearly well-meant inquiries that somehow made me feel worse about myself. So I try not to do that to other people.


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