Is No a Complete Sentence?

My mother-in-law once told me, “No is a complete sentence.”

At the time, I mentally filed this pronouncement with other Al-Anon maxims like One Day at a Time, Easy Does It, and I Cannot Give What I Do Not Have. Hard to argue with the helpful vibe, but not clear how to change my behavior from such advice.

Then one day, as I was feeling overwhelmed by the things I had said yes to at work, I found myself thinking about it again. My first curiosity was whether it was a sound grammatical claim. What can I say? I like me some rules. I am not the only person on the internet to wonder about this. The internet does not appear to have a consensus in its wondering (see the “pro-sentence” classification on Wikipedia AND the discussion of the nuances on Quora). My vote in this debate is for YES on grammatical. The other possibility makes my head hurt: “Is No a Complete Sentence?” “No.”? That seems paradoxical.

After I got past that pedanticality, I thought about the meaning. “No is a complete sentence” means that I don’t have to explain–or apologize for–my refusal. No as a complete sentence is antithetical to academic culture. We have built our careers on constructing well-reasoned arguments, vigilant about how well the logic and evidence support claims. I might say to my family, “because I said so,” but I don’t get to say that to colleagues.

I see that I need to be better with my no. As I have reported elsewhere on this blog, women are relatively bad at refusing “low-promotability” tasks, tasks in which the benefit to others outweighs the cost to the person who does it, but benefit to the person herself does not. I am working on ways to say no to those. I have that American Economic Review article (discussed in the other post) sitting on my office desk, like a shield I can wave to protect me from requests. That is a reason to say no: “Have you broadly considered others for this request?”

Giving a reason with my no makes me think of the famous “copy machine study” by psychologist Ellen Langer. She examined what happened when someone tries to cut in line to use the copier. The other people in line were resistant when no reason was offered. Reasons helped soften the people in line. Even when the reason is “because I have to make copies!”

Which leads me to a surprisingly effective response to those requests for unrewarding tasks, “No, I can’t do it because it simply won’t be possible.” That sentence is surely complete, grammatically and every other way.

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