Appendix:English tag questions

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Introduction[edit]

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.

Forms[edit]

Affirmative - Negative[edit]

The basic form consists of an affirmative statement followed by the negative interrogative form of the auxiliary 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.

Negative - Affirmative[edit]

Alternatively, the statement can be negative, followed by the affirmative interrogative form of the auxiliary 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?

Affirmative - Affirmative[edit]

There also exists the affirmative statement followed by the affirmative interrogative form of the auxiliary 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.

Intonation[edit]

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 almost completely sure he is correct.
  2. Rising tone. Means the speaker is making an assumption and is not totally sure. S/he is actually asking a question, although s/he still expects an affirmative reply.
  • Rising tone. Normally at all times in the case of Affirmative - Affirmative.

Examples[edit]

Modals[edit]

  • "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.
  • "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 it is very 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? - Ex.- 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.

Be/Do/Have auxiliaries[edit]

Be
  • Tag questions using "be" as the main verb, or as the auxiliary verb, agree in tense as well as person, except for the first person singular present, where aren't is used.
Do
  • In simple present and simple past tenses, the auxiliary don't or doesn't or didn't is used in the tag with affirmative statements.
Have
  • Where "have" means possess it is possible to use both don't, doesn't and haven't, hasn't as the tag auxiliary, but only in the present tense.
  • Where "have" is used as an auxiliary verb, have tag questions are the only possibility.
  • Some special cases of "have" tags

Special cases[edit]

Negative Adverbs
  • Adverbs with a negative sense in the statement clause lead to the use of an affirmative tag. Examples are...hardly, scarcely, 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?
Imperatives
  • 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?
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 tagged affirmatively.
  • I don't suppose I could take the afternoon off, could I?

Pronouns[edit]

Use of tag pronouns
  • After a clause with nothing, the tag pronoun is normally it

Common exceptions[edit]

Some non-standard forms
  • While the above is the main grammar of tag questions, there are many non-standard usages. Here are just a few.
  • right Used as a tag question in both American and British English.
  • You're coming to the party, right?
  • ain't Also used as a wild card tag.
  • 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.