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Tag Questions

Tag Questions

Date: Oct 14 2007

Topic: Grammar

Author: sapere_aude


A tag question is a special construction in English. It is a statement followed by a mini-question. The whole sentence is a "tag question", and the mini-question at the end is called a "question tag".

We use tag questions at the end of statements to ask for confirmation. They mean something like: "Am I right?" or "Do you agree?" They are very common in English.

The basic structure is:

Positive statement,
negative tag?
Snow is white,isn't it?
Negative statement,
positive tag?
You don't like me,do you?

Look at these examples with positive statements:

positive statement [+]negative tag [-]notes:
subjectauxiliarymain verb auxiliarynotpersonal
(same as subject)
Youarecoming, aren'tyou? 
Wehavefinished, haven'twe? 
You likecoffee,don'tyou?You (do) like...
Theywillhelp, won'tthey?won't = will not
Icancome, can'tI? 
Wemustgo, mustn'twe? 
You areEnglish,aren'tyou?no auxiliary for main verb be present & past
John wasthere,wasn'the?

Look at these examples with negative statements:

negative statement [-]positive tag [+]
subjectauxiliary main verb  auxiliarypersonal
(same as subject)
Itisn'training,  isit?
Wehaveneverseen that,havewe?
Youdon'tlike coffee,doyou?
Theywillnothelp,  willthey?
Theywon'treport us,willthey?
Icanneverdo it right,canI?
Wemustn'ttell her,mustwe?
Heshouldn'tdrive so fast,shouldhe?
You  aren'tEnglish,areyou?
John  wasnotthere,washe?

Some special cases:

I am right, aren't I?aren't I (not amn't I)
You have to go, don't you?you (do) have to go...
I have been answering, haven't I?use first auxiliary
Nothing came in the post, did it?treat statements with nothing, nobody etc like negative statements
Let's go, shall we?let's = let us
He'd better do it, hadn't he?he had better (no auxiliary)

Here are some mixed examples:

  • But you don't really love her, do you?
  • This will work, won't it?
  • Well, I couldn't help it, could I?
  • But you'll tell me if she calls, won't you?
  • We'd never have known, would we?
  • The weather's bad, isn't it?
  • You won't be late, will you?
  • Nobody knows, do they?

Notice that we often use tag questions to ask for information or help, starting with a negative statement. This is quite a friendly/polite way of making a request. For example, instead of saying "Where is the police station?" (not very polite), or "Do you know where the police station is?" (slightly more polite), we could say: "You wouldn't know where the police station is, would you?" Here are some more examples:

  • You don't know of any good jobs, do you?
  • You couldn't help me with my homework, could you?
  • You haven't got $10 to lend me, have you?

Answers to tag questions

How do we answer a tag question? Often, we just say Yes or No. Sometimes we may repeat the tag and reverse it (..., do they? Yes, they do). Be very careful about answering tag questions. In some languages, an oposite system of answering is used, and non-native English speakers sometimes answer in the wrong way. This can lead to a lot of confusion!

for example, everyone knows that snow is white. Look at these questions, and the correct answers:

tag questioncorrect answer   
Snow is white, isn't it?Yes (it is).the answer is the same in both cases - because snow IS WHITE!but notice the change of stress when the answerer does not agree with the questioner
Snow isn't white, is it?Yes it is!
Snow is black, isn't it?No it isn't!the answer is the same in both cases - because snow IS NOT BLACK!
Snow isn't black, is it?No (it isn't).

In some languages, people answer a question like "Snow isn't black, is it?" with "Yes" (meaning "Yes, I agree with you"). This is the wrong answer in English!

Here are some more examples, with correct answers:

  • The moon goes round the earth, doesn't it? Yes, it does.
  • The earth is bigger than the moon, isn't it? Yes.
  • The earth is bigger than the sun, isn't it? No, it isn't!
  • Asian people don't like rice, do they? Yes, they do!
  • Elephants live in Europe, don't they? No, they don't!
  • Men don't have babies, do they? No.
  • The English alphabet doesn't have 40 letters, does it? No, it doesn't.

Question tags with imperatives

Sometimes we use question tags with imperatives (invitations, orders), but the sentence remains an imperative and does not require a direct answer. We use won't for invitations. We use can, can't, will, would for orders.

 imperative + question tagnotes:
invitationTake a seat, won't you?polite
orderHelp me, can you?quite friendly
Help me, can't you?quite friendly (some irritation?)
Close the door, would you?quite polite
Do it now, will you?less polite
Don't forget, will you?with negative imperatives only will is possible

Same-way question tags

Although the basic structure of tag questions is positive-negative or negative-positive, it is sometime possible to use a positive-positive or negative-negative structure. We use same-way question tags to express interest, surprise, anger etc, and not to make real questions.

  • So you're having a baby, are you? That's wonderful!
  • She wants to marry him, does she? Some chance!
  • So you think that's amusing, do you? Think again.

Negative-negative tag questions usually sound rather hostile:

  • So you don't like my looks, don't you?

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