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Concourse 2

Question tags

tag


form

Forming tags

One of the ways of making questions in English is the use of question tags.  Some examples (tags in black):

  1. You've finished, haven't you?
  2. You haven't finished, have you?
  3. He hates it, doesn't he?
  4. He doesn't like it, does he?
  5. He left, didn't he?
  6. He didn't leave, did he?
  7. They have arrived, haven't they?
  1. They haven't been working, have they?
  2. I can't go tomorrow, can I?
  3. I must pay for this, mustn't I
  4. He is her husband, isn't he?
  5. She isn't happy, is she?
  6. You have my address, haven't you?
  7. You don't have my address, do you?

write Task 1: These examples demonstrate the essential rules for forming question tags.  Focus on:
  1. The occurrence of negative and positive forms.
  2. The use of do / does
  3. What happens with verbs like can
  4. What happens with the verbs have and be
Click here when you have a list.

That is actually rather a long list of rules and some are not simple.  It's an area to treat carefully and piecemeal in the classroom.


flags

Other languages differ

A few languages work like English with tags following grammatical rules for forming questions and negatives but many do not.  For example:

Many languages, including Polish, German, Greek and others can use a phrase or a single word meaning, roughly, True? or Not true?  So, e.g.:
German: nicht wahr? [not true?], Spanish: ¿verdad? [true?], Polish: prawda? [true?] or nieprawdaż? [not true?], Greek: δεν είναι ετσι; (then eenay etsi?) [is it not so?] and so on.
Some languages have a small range of words or phrases to ask for agreement such as French: n'est ce pas [isn't it] or d'accord? [agree?].
In many languages there exists a small word used only for tag questions such as Mandarin (ma?), German dialects (gell?) Portuguese: né? and so on.

In most languages, the forms have become fossilised and do not vary in the complicated ways that the tags vary in English.  This presents obvious problems for learners.


meaning

Meaning

intonation

Meaning is closely tied to intonation.
In many cases, the tone of voice falls on the tag, like this:

tag example tag example

When the voice falls like this, the tag functions to mean something like:
Please say you agree with me
.
In other words, it asks for confirmation that the speaker is correct.  Notice that the words lovely and late are also stressed here.

When the tone rises, like this:

tag example tag example

Then the sentences function as true interrogatives.  Notice that now we stress the verb because that is the focus of our attention.

intention

The communicative function of the sentence is drawn from the first clause.  Compare, e.g.:
    You want a drink, don't you?
where the speaker is probably sure the answer will be 'yes' with:
    You don't want a drink, do you?
where a falling tone would imply the speaker expects a negative response but a rising tone would indicate surprise.
The same thing happens with modals.  Compare:
    You couldn't do it for me, could you?
where a rising tone indicates a request, with:
    You could do it for me, couldn't you?
where a rising tone indicates a request but a falling tone indicates almost a command.


unbalanced

Unbalanced tags

So ...

Unbalanced tags have a different, but very common, structure.  They involve positive + positive or negative + negative and have number of uses:

  1. Inference:
    So, the car's over the road, is it?
    i.e., I have figured this out from where we are walking
  2. Sarcasm, suspicion or irony:
    So you think you know me, do you?
    i.e., you are presuming too much or
    So, you don't believe me, don't you?
    i.e., it's not your place to make judgements
  3. Threat:
    You'd take my money, would you?
  4. Conclusion:
    So, he likes the book, does he?
    So, he hasn't had the time, hasn't he?

In all of these the tone rises on the tag.

The use of an introductory So ... in these sorts of utterances is extremely common.  Don't try to teach the area without making that clear.


irregular

Irregularities and complications

There are a few irregular forms to be wary of.

  1. If the first statement starts with I, the tag is formed with aren't:
        I'm here, aren't I?
    Note that this does not work the other way round:
        I'm not invited, am I?
    not
        *I'm not invited, are I?
    (amn't I? exists in some dialects.)
  2. Some consider a tag formed with may to be unusual or stilted:
        Joan may come, mayn't she?
    The preference here is often to exchange may for could/might, when talking about possibility:
        She could/might be here early, couldn't/mightn't she?
    and can for may when talking about permission:
        I can come, can't I?
  3. Imperative forms
    1. Positive imperative forms (commands) take will in the tag:
          Be quite, will you?
      which can be softened with would:
          Be quiet, would you?
    2. Positive imperative forms also take both positive and negative tags with a slight change of emphasis:
          Be quiet, won't you?
      (pleading)
          Be, quiet, will you (command imperative)
      but this is not allowed with would:
          *Be quiet, wouldn't you?
    3. Negative commands (i.e., prohibitions) take no tag so we can't say:
          *Don't touch it, will you?
      (Although You won't touch it, will you? is fine.)
    4. Real imperatives are used with a rising tone and both positive and negative tags but a falling tone with a negative tag denotes concern.  Compare:
          Drive carefully, will you?
      (rising tone indicates irritation and is an imperative)
          Sit still, won't you? (rising tone indicates irritation and is an imperative)
          Drive carefully, won't you? (falling tone indicates concern rather than an imperative)
  4. Complex tenses
    When we make a tag question with a complex tense (i.e., one that has more than one auxiliary verb), it is the first auxiliary which is used in the tag:
        He hasn't been working too hard again, has he?
        He won't have arrived yet, will he?
  5. Pronunciation
    It is rare for weak forms of vowels to occur in tags.  The verb can is usually contracted to/kən/ in connected speech but in the tag, it retains its full pronunciation as /kæn/.  E.g.:
        I can come, can't I? is usually transcribed as /ˈaɪ kən kʌm ˈkɑːnt aɪ/ but
        I can't come, can I? is usually /ˈaɪ kɑːnt kʌm ˈkæn aɪ /

use

Use

Tag questions are almost solely used in informal spoken language or written language which resembles spoken language (such as very informal emails).
As we saw above, under meaning, they can be simple statements requiring only confirmation, real questions or expressions of inference, sarcasm, threat, reprimand or conclusion.
To make sure you have this, try a test.


classroom

Teaching tag questions

Very often, tags questions are used to initiate or maintain a conversation and are very helpful to learners who sometimes struggle to achieve this.
They are, however, quite complicated so should be approached in a piecemeal fashion.  One lesson will not be enough.

context

context

  1. Formality
    As was noted under use, above, tags are a feature of informal, spoken language so that is the setting in which they should be presented or practised.  Written exercises can be a way of focusing learners carefully on form but it is not a natural way to practise question tags.
    Dialogues such as:
    sheep
    A It's cold, isn't it?
    B Yes, isn't it?
    A The 51 should be here by now, shouldn't it?
    B Well, it's Sunday.  It's a reduced timetable, isn't it?
    A You'd think they'd run a proper service, though, wouldn't you?
    and so on, are helpful to set scenes and emphasise both that tags are used as ice-breakers in conversation and are informal.
  2. Function
    What is in the mind of the speaker is very important.  You can't teach question tags without making the speaker's intentions clear.
    Remember that intonation plays a vital role in getting meaning across.
    In the little dialogue above, the opening comment almost certainly has a falling tone on the tag because it's an ice-breaker.  Thereafter, it all depends on the amount of knowledge a speaker has:
    If speaker A knows the timetable and is just making conversation, shouldn't it? will have a falling tone.  If the speaker is truly asking for information, the tone will rise.
    If speaker B knows about Sunday timetables, the tone on the tag will fall, but if she/he is uncertain, the tone will rise.
    An awareness raising task might be something like:
    Look at the tone of voice.  Are the speakers sure or not?
    q tags dialogue q tag dialogue
    In this dialogue the speakers are just making conversation.  Neither speaker asks a real question – they both just want the other person to say they are right.  They both know the timetable and they are both unhappy with the poor service. In this dialogue, apart from the first comment, the speakers are asking real questions or saying they are surprised at how cold it is.  They do not know the timetable and they are complaining about the service.
    Of course, you can vary the way the arrows point and make all sorts of other meanings.  If you have an interactive whiteboard, that's a useful tool but this can be done with cut-out arrows placed on a handout.
    If you can record the dialogue naturally in a few ways and get learners to place the arrows pointing the way they hear and then get them to adjust them and test each other's intonation and understanding of speaker intention, that's even better.
    Notice that these two dialogues only focus on balanced tags with the verb be and two modal verbs.  You can adapt it to include complex tenses and unbalanced tags but only at higher levels.
  3. Form
    The form of question tags, especially for learners whose languages are very different in this area is actually quite hard to learn and produce naturally.  Learners need lots of focused practice and some drilling, possibly.
    It's easy to provide this with gap-fill, completion exercises and so on but be careful not to overload learners, especially at lower levels, with too many rules and forms.  For a couple of ideas in this area, look at the grammar exercises for learners at A1/A2 level or at a mixed tag exercise for slightly higher-level learners.
    Check the five rules at the start of this guide and focus on them one by one initially.  Later, you can mix them up but until the learners are confidently producing accurate tags in each area, that is perilous.
    Here's a suggested way to focus:
    • Start with balanced tags.  Negative + Positive and Positive + Negative.
    • Focus on to the use of be and have:
          It's cold, isn't it?
          You aren't wearing a coat, are you?
          You haven't got a spare one, have you?
    • Focus on modal verbs:
          I can't borrow hers, can I?
          You could go inside, couldn't you?
    • Focus on main verbs and do, does, did:
          You didn't bring a hat, did you?
      etc.
    • Only when the above have been mastered should you focus at more advanced levels on functions such as inference, conclusion, sarcasm or threat.


Related guides
negation and questions this is a general guide covering some peculiarities of English
wh-questions an essential guide to a different form of question making
grammar exercises for learners for some examples of the kinds of exercises you might want to use in class
tag exercise for slightly higher-level learners