A long time ago, in an undergraduate writing workshop far, far away, I read a story in which a character shook their head yes. When the workshop met for discussion I pointed out that people can either shake their head no or nod their head yes, but it wasn’t clear from the context which error the author had made. What genuinely surprised me, however, was not that the author didn’t know the difference, but that a handful of the other members also did not.
At the time I assumed I had stumbled into an aberrant cluster of people who were not well verse in the obscure art of describing head movements, but in the intervening decades that has proven not to be the case. In particular, there seems to be a persistent percentage of people who believe that nodding and shaking of the head both mean yes when they are decidedly not. So let this post — abetted over time by the long reach of search engine algorithms — stand as a corrective.
To nod your head is to repeatedly lift and drop your chin, and that tilting along the pitch axis of your skull signifies agreement or assent — yes.
To shake your head is to repeatedly turn your head to the left and right along the yaw axis of your skull, and that lateral side-to-side movement signifies disagreement or dissent — no.
Importantly, there are no variations on these themes, cultural or otherwise. I am a big believer in the plasticity of language, and one of these days I’m going to drop a rant on that subject, but even if there are people who mean no when they nod their head or yes when they shake their head, for the purposes of communicating head movements to others using words those idiosyncrasies would still be objectively wrong.
Circling back to the craft of writing — whether fiction, nonfiction or journalism — you can see the need for absolute clarity about these distinctions. Writing that someone nodded in response to another individual’s statement would convey agreement or assent, meaning if the author intended otherwise the vast majority of readers would be misled as to the meaning of that action. Film the scene and there is no possibility of confusion, but write it and it fails.
About the only positive I can see ever coming from this mistake would be a minor plot twist about this confusion in a narrative context. A character says they saw someone shake their head in response to a question, when they mean the person nodded, but that confusion of meaning isn’t discovered until a key moment. Write that cleanly and meaningfully, without leaving your readers confused or bored, and you can consider yourself accomplished.
— Mark Barrett
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