Welcome here again! Allow me to present to you this interesting post titled, Tag Questions in English: Formation, Rules and Examples. There are many Types of Questions in English and I have a post dedicated to that which you might want to check out. Tag Question is one of them. Let us look at its formation, rules, types and examples; shall we?
Tag Questions in English: Formation, Rules and Examples
We shall begin our discussion on tag questions or question tags by looking at the definition or meaning of question tags…
A tag question is a short question which we add to a statement, to elicit a confirming response from the hearer. In other words, a tag question is one in which an imperative sentence or a declarative sentence is changed into a question with an interrogative tag.
A tag question is a distinct structure in English. It is a statement followed by a mini-question. Tail question is also another name by which tag question goes. We use a tag question to turn a statement into a question.
In further explaining tag question, we should note that we use it mostly in spoken form rather than in formal or written discourse. Tag questions can arise out of the need to be polite, or the need to elicit agreement or consensus, it could indicate emphasis or irony (humour based on using words to suggest the opposite of their literal meaning).
Sometimes, it could come as a result of the need to hedge. A hedge is an evasive or non-committal statement. In addition, tag questions could even be rhetorical, (See Types of Questions). In the legal jurisdiction, lawyers or prosecutors use tag questions in their leading questions. We use tag question in confirming whether something is true or otherwise. We also use it to encourage a reply from our interlocutor.
Let us see some examples of question tags…
- The man has arrived, hasn’t he?
- They are not here, are they?
- The candidates passed the examination, didn’t they?
- She is tired, isn’t she?
- He has bought a book, hasn’t he?
- We read his note, didn’t we?
- It is not clear, is it?
- They should not go there, should they?
- He has a car, doesn’t he?
- We will do our best, won’t we?
- I cannot drive, can I?
- She would do the right thing, wouldn’t she?
- He had long gone, hadn’t he?
- He is from London, isn’t he?
- John can speak Italian, can’t he?
- The apples aren’t good, are they?
- She shouldn’t behave like that, should she?
- You play the flute, don’t you?
- Aldan likes football, doesn’t he?
- The children went to the cinema, didn’t they?
- She studied Theatre in New York, didn’t she?
- Tom hardly ever speaks, does he?
- We rarely go out in winter, do we?
- He has not arrived, has he?
- The clients are not here yet, are they?
Question Tag Rules
Let us now consider the rules for tag question formation…
We form the tag question from the statement using the subject and the operator; the syntactic formation is a subject-operator (S-op) inversion; that is inverting the subject and the auxiliary. In English, which has a broad range of tag questions, the choice of tag question depends on the grammatical form of the statement.
Moreover, there are rules for forming the most common types of tag questions and they are:
Question Tag Rule 1
Using the non-contracted form, we form the tag question under this rule by copying the operator of the given statement and changing it to negative if it is positive or to positive if it is negative. For example:
- You have arrived, haven’t you?
- She is not back, is she?
- They are swimming, aren’t they?
- We were asked to pay, weren’t we?
- He should not say that, should he?
Question Tag Rule 2
In the absence of an operator, that is, an auxiliary verb, we use the positive or negative form of the primary or non-modal auxiliary verb ‘do’. See the following examples:
- The dog likes to bark always, doesn’t it?
- The designs came out well, didn’t they?
- We live in an age of information, don’t we?
- You like soda, don’t you?
Question Tag Rule 3
If the subject of the statement is a personal pronoun, we copy and place it after the operator in the tag question. For instance:
- We have not met before, have we?
- He is a jolly good fellow, isn’t he?
Question Tag Rule 4
- The meeting won’t take long, will it?
- The children should eat now, shouldn’t they?
- Kids are not allowed, are they?
Tag Question for I am
There is this tricky part of tag questions which could confuse many users of English. It is the tag question for one of the non-modal auxiliary verbs or the be-verbs, am. There are sentences that have ‘I am’ in them like:
- I am a teacher.
- I am doing the job.
How do we then account for the tag for these types of sentences? In colloquial or informal utterances, mostly in American colloquial speech, the word ain’t is used. Encarta Dictionary* summarises ain’t thus:
Ain’t is one of the most informal verb contractions in English, and its use in formal contexts may be criticized because it is associated with careless speech. It is, however, accepted in folk and popular song lyrics, show titles, direct quotations, and fictional dialogue. Otherwise ain’t is best avoided, except as a deliberate rhetorical device and in allusive expressions such as, You ain’t seen nothing yet.
The correct and grammatically acceptable tag question for I am is the non-modal auxiliary, are. So we have:
- I am a teacher, aren’t I?
- I am doing the job, aren’t I?
The above caters for sentences that do not contain the negative; but when the sentence contains the negative, we use the positive tag am as in the following:
- I am not a singer, am I?
- I am not travelling now, am I?
As stated under the rules for question tags formation, we use the operator (the modal auxiliary verb or the non-modal auxiliary verb) to generate the tag question. If the operator is positive, the tag becomes negative; and if the operator is negative, the tag becomes positive.
However, there are situations in which we do not use this normal pattern; positive statements attract positive tags and negative statements attract negative tags. There are even situations in which another auxiliary different from the one in the sentence is used to form the tag question. These are irregular question tags. Some refer to this as unbalanced question tags or same-way tag questions. Reasons for this could be for ironic, sarcastic or confrontational effects. We also use them to request confirmation or suggestion.
- Do pay attention, will you?
- Oh, I’m tired, am I?
- Statement: I refuse to attend the party uninvited!
Response: Oh you do, do you? Let’s see about that!
- Oh! Making a decision, are we?
- I’ll cook some food, shall I?
- Let us begin, shall we?
- Let us pray, shall we?
- The driver has to come, doesn’t he?
- Do listen, will you?
- Let’s have a drink, shall we?
- So you’re going abroad, are you?
- She wants to adopt a child, does she?
- So you think that’s funny, do you?
Positive Tag Questions
In English, it is not only the word ‘not’ or any word that begins with prefixes of negation like ‘un’, ‘mis’, ‘non’, ‘de’, ‘mal’, etc. (See Prefix: Definition, Types and Examples) that conveys a negative sense or has a negative connotation. There are some adverbs that have a negative connotation, even though they appear in a positive sentence. Such adverbs include: scarcely, barely, hardly, rarely, never, seldom, etc. (See the post, Do All Adverbs End in ly?). Because these adverbs have a negative sense, the question that we use for them is usually positive in conformity to the rule of negative statements attract positive tags and vice-versa. Let us see these examples:
- They scarcely eat well these days, do they?
- I barely made it to the games, did I?
- She hardly lends out money, does she?
- It never happened again, did it?
- We seldom tell moonlight stories, do we?
Question Tag for Imperative Sentences
An imperative sentence or statement is one that gives an order, instruction, polite invitation (See Types of Sentences According to Function). There is a need, sometimes, to use question tags with imperatives. The tags we use vary depending on the nature of the imperative; whether it is an invitation or an order. For invitations, we use ‘won’t’ and for orders, we ‘can’, ‘can’t’, ‘will’ or ‘would’ (See Modal Auxiliary Verbs). Let us see some examples:
- Take a bow, won’t you? (Polite invitation)
- Come with me, won’t you? (Polite invitation)
- Take a sip, won’t you? (Polite invitation)
- Help me, can you? (Friendly)
- Help me, can’t you? (Friendly, but with a tinge of irritation)
- Bring her along, won’t you? (Polite request)
- Shut the windows, would you? (Polite request)
- Do it now, will you? (Order, less polite)
- Sit down, will you? (Order)
- Get out, will you? (Order)
When it comes to negative imperatives, we use only ‘will’ for the tag. For example:
- Don’t do it, will you?
- Don’t forget, will you?
This post, Tag Questions in English: Formation, Rules, Types and Examples, has explained what a tag question is and the rules guiding its formation with copious illustrations. Do kindly share with your friends and reach us via the comment box. Take time to check out the following educative posts as well:
*Microsoft® Encarta® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.