Appendix:English tag questions

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IntroductionEdit

This section is about the grammar of tag questions in common English usage. Tag questions can be found in everyday speech and written verbatim records of conversations. The tag question is a way of checking the correctness of an assumption or statement, by asking the interlocutor for agreement, or clarification. Tag questions are often used simply as a kind of oil to keep the conversation running smoothly.

Tag questions are mainly used in spoken communication, and therefore the intended meaning of a tag question is strongly influenced by voice inflection. This appendix will also attempt to address this problem in a simplified way.

FormsEdit

Affirmative–NegativeEdit

The basic form consists of an affirmative statement followed by the negative interrogative form of the appropriate auxiliary verb (or, in the case of "be" and sometimes "have", main verb).

  • You can play the piano, can't you?

Here the speaker believes the other person can play the piano, and is expecting the affirmative reply, and would find the negative reply surprising.

A more formal, or literary, form, little used in spoken English, uses an uncontracted negative:

  • You can play the piano, can you not?

In this and all other forms of the tag question, the tag subject must be a pronoun ("you" in the examples above). For example, "Lions can swim, can't lions?" is not natural, but must be converted to "Lions can swim, can't they?"

IntonationEdit

The voice tone is normally You can play the piano as a statement, in a flat, even voice.

The tag part can take two forms.

  1. Falling tone. Means the speaker is confident that the statement is correct.
  2. Rising tone. Means the speaker is making an assumption and is not totally sure. The speaker is actually asking a question, although he or she still expects an affirmative reply.

Negative–AffirmativeEdit

Alternatively, the statement can be negative, followed by the affirmative interrogative form of the appropriate auxiliary verb (or, in the case of "be" and sometimes "have", main verb).

  • But you can't play the violin, can you?

Here the speaker believes the other person can't play the violin, and is expecting the negative reply, and would find the affirmative reply surprising.

This structure is often employed when making a very polite request.

  • I couldn't have the afternoon off, could I?

IntonationEdit

Intonation is as the same as the affirmative–negative case, except that rising tone signals expectation of a negative reply.

Affirmative–AffirmativeEdit

There also exists the affirmative statement followed by the affirmative interrogative form of the appropriate auxiliary verb (or, in the case of "be" and sometimes "have", main verb).

  • He can work next Sunday, can he?

Here the speaker is either:

  1. Asking a real question.
  2. Confirming the veracity of a new piece of information.

IntonationEdit

In the affirmative–affirmative case, the tag question is normally spoken with a rising tone.

Use of question markEdit

While tag questions are, as their name suggests, normally followed by a question mark, this may be omitted if the sentence is considered more a statement than a true question. For example:

  • It's broken, isn't it? (speaker is asking for confirmation that it is broken)
  • It's broken, isn't it. (speaker is stating that it is broken, with explanatory nuance)

ExamplesEdit

ModalsEdit

Modals

"Shall" and "shan't" are normally found only with first person singular and plural ("I" and "we"). The tag question "shall I?" or "shall we?" is most commonly found as a real question asking for clarification of a request for instructions.

"Shall" statements also take will tags.

"Shall" is often used with let's when making a suggestion.

"ought" tag questions are not very common for the difficulty of using oughtn't. "Ought" is sometimes found mixed with should. For example:

"Must" forms tag questions with both itself and with have to. Also, where "must" means obligation, tag questions can be formed with both should and ought.

"May" is rarely used in tag questions. Where may means permission, mayn't is sometimes used for the tag, but this is formal or dated. Where may means probability, mightn't is usually used for the tag. "May not" is used in the statement clause, rather than "mayn't".

  • I may (do s/t), mayn't I? – Request for permission
  • I may not (do s/t), may I?
  • I may (do s/t), mightn't I? – E.g. The flight may be delayed, mightn't it?
  • I may not (do s/t), might I?

"Might" tag questions are almost exclusively used for probability statements.

  • I might (do s/t), mightn't I?
  • I might not (do s/t), might I? - It is unusual to find "mightn't" in the statement clause.

"Going to do" tag questions with future modality are treated either as "to be -ing" or as "will" (mostly in 2nd and third persons)

Be/Do/HaveEdit

Be

The "be" verb may be employed in tag questions as either a main verb or auxiliary verb. The tag form of "be" agrees with the main clause in tense and in person. However, in the case of first person singular present, the contracted form of "am not" has developed into "aren't". In formal or literary contexts, "am I not?" may be used instead.

As a main verb:

  • I am your friend, aren't I?
  • I am your friend, am I not? (formal/literary)
  • I am not your friend, am I?
  • You are my friend, aren't you?
  • You are not my friend, are you?
  • He is my friend, isn't he?
  • He isn't my friend, is he?

As an auxiliary verb:

Similarly, in the passive voice:

Do

The verb "do" is employed in tag questions as an auxiliary, with the main verb implied from the main clause. It is used when no auxiliary (other than "do" itself) is present in the main clause, and when the main verb is not "be" (or sometimes "have").

  • She does embroidery, doesn't she?
  • Termites do a great deal of damage, don't they?
  • He did it, didn't he?
Have

Where "have" is a present-tense main verb meaning "possess", it is possible in British English to either directly echo "have" in the tag question or to use "do" auxiliary. The former may seem more formal. In American English, "do" is normally used in this case. In other cases of main verb "have", "do" is used in the tag. Where "have" is used as an auxiliary verb, to form the present perfect or past perfect tenses, "have" tag questions are the only possibility.

As a present-tense main verb meaning "possess":

As a past-tense main verb:

As an auxiliary verb:

Special constructions with "have"

In British English, "have got", in the sense of "possess", takes a "have" tag. In American English "do" is used.

Special casesEdit

Negative Adverbs

Adverbs with a negative sense in the statement clause lead to the use of an affirmative tag. Examples are: hardly, scarcely, barely, rarely, never.

Negative Subjects

Similarly, subjects that are negative normally lead to an affirmative–affirmative tag question

  • No-one came, did they?
  • Nothing works, does it?
  • None of them can help, can they?
Indefinite Impersonal ONE as Subject

Indefinite impersonal one subjects can be tagged with either "one", or "you", or "they" as the pronoun.

  • One shouldn’t be too quick to judge, should one?
  • One can't be too careful, can you?
  • One must be on the guest list, mustn't they?

Note- Considered somewhat formal, or even pretentious.

Imperatives

Imperatives are often tagged with will, won't, would, can, can't, could you?

  • Give me a hand, will you?
  • Hurry up, won't you?
  • Close the door, would you?
  • Give Jim a lift, can you?
  • Keep quiet, can't you?
  • Lend me a tenner, could you?

A negative imperative is normally followed by will you?

  • Don't do that again, will you?

A suggestion using let's can be tagged with shall we?

Polite requests

As mentioned in the introduction, polite requests are usually formulated as negative–affirmative using a "polite" modal.

Requests that start with phrases such as "I don't suppose that..." usually use a "polite" modal in affirmative and are tagged affirmatively.

  • I don't suppose I could take the afternoon off, could I?

PronounsEdit

Use of tag pronouns

After a clause with somebody, someone, everybody, everyone, nobody, no-one the tag pronoun is normally they.

After a clause with nothing, the tag pronoun is normally it.

When using there is, there are etc, the tag pronoun is normally there.

Other formsEdit

While the above is the main grammar of tag questions, certain other words and phrases may also be employed to similar purpose. Here are just a few.

  • "right", "yes", "no": Used like a tag question in both American and British English.
    • You're coming to the party, right?
    • You're coming to the party, yes?
    • You're coming to the party, no?
  • "innit": A low-register contracted form of "isn't it" associated especially with British English, also in widely condemned use as wild card tag question, used irrespective of person, number or verb.
    • He's got a new car, innit?
  • "wannit": sometimes used as a contraction of "wasn't it".
  • "wannit": A low-register contracted form of "wasn't it" associated especially with British English, also in widely condemned use as wild card tag question for past time statements, used irrespective of person, number or verb.
    • He got an expensive new car last month, wannit?
  • "ain't": Low-register alternative to "isn't" or "aren't"; also used as a wild card to substitute for other verb forms (proscribed).
    • It's broken, ain't it.
    • He went away, ain't he?
  • "eh": Used without a pronoun, especially common in Canada, as a wild card tag.
    • It's cold outside, eh?
    • Humorously and redundantly, as in "How's it goin', eh?", popularized by Canadian sketch comedy characters Bob and Doug MacKenzie.