QUESTION: I heard someone say, “I don’t suppose you like that, do you?” Is that correct? Why doesn’t the subject in the question tag match “I”? How do you form question tags with “I don’t suppose?”
ANSWER: A YouTube viewer posted this question, and it took some digging and reflection to come up with an answer. It’s one of those questions that had me turning to a colleague for additional insights. We both pondered the nature of “I suppose” and “I don’t suppose” in relation to tags that could occur in conversation.
Conversation — that was the key. We all know that certain patterns are more typical of conversation than written speech. Furthermore, exceptions to more standard patterns are more likely to occur when speaking, especially in a casual context. Question tags, by nature, are conversational. Speakers often use them to seek confirmation or agreement. Question tags seem to have a good number of variations, which is probably due to the very fluid nature of our spoken thoughts.
Let’s first recall the basic pattern for forming question tags: The subject in most question tags matches the subject in the main clause: You like that, don’t you? Also, the question tag generally uses an auxiliary verb in the form that is opposite of the main clause verb: You don’t like that, do you?’ Of course, I used the phrases “most question tags” and “generally uses” purposefully. Almost any rule has its exceptions: Interesting, isn’t it? [Example of a tag for an incomplete main clause.] Oh, you already know the answer, do you? [Example of a tag with an affirmative verb, though the main verb is also affirmative. Used to express a challenge.] Don’t interrupt me, will you? [Example of a tag following an imperative.] Let’s consider the matter more, shall we? [Example of a tag following a main clause with Let's.]
As we continue to explore exceptions to the rule, we need to recognize that some question tags will not follow a simple declarative sentence. There can be a main clause and a subordinate clause, as in the case of “I don’t suppose [main clause] you like that [subordinate clause], do you [question tag]?” I don’t suppose is an example of a comment clause. Other comment clauses include I guess, I believe, I think, and I would say. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English states that these clauses can mark the speaker’s opinion or express a degree of doubt or certainty (Biber et al, 865). Furthermore, Biber explains how comment clauses appear in more than one position (197). Speakers can use them as the main clause or as finite clause stance adverbials, which means their position can vary:
- I guess this will take some thought, won’t it?
- This will take some thought, I guess, won’t it?
- I think it’s becoming clearer, isn’t it?
- It’s becoming clearer, I think, isn’t it?
It seems simple enough to tell students to focus on the main thought rather than words inserted as comments when forming a question tag. However, that only helps when the comment clause is affirmative. Note how the examples with affirmative comment clauses allow the speaker to observe the standard rule of polarity in the question tags:
- I guess this will take some time, won’t it? (+,+/-)
- I think it’s becoming clearer, isn’t it? (+,+/-)
- I’d say say that’s enough, isn’t it? (+,+/-)
- I believe we’re almost done, aren’t we? (+,+/-)
Now consider the following examples with negative comment clauses. We can’t tell students to ignore the comment clause and focus on the main idea to form the tag. That would help with the choice of subject, but not the verb form.
- I don’t think it’s any clearer now, is it? (-,+/+)
- I don’t believe we’re done, are we? (-,+/+)
- I don’t suppose you like that, do you? (-,+/+)
The verb in the comment clause (the main clause) is negative, the verb in the subordinate clause is affirmative, and the question tag is affirmative. What happened? I believe the comment clause decides the issue of polarity, but the subordinate clause indicates the true subject. In other words, negative comment clauses (-) require affirmative question tags (+), and affirmative comment clauses (+) require negative question tags (-). The speaker must focus on the main idea to determine the true subject of the question tag.
I don’t think that was too confusing, was it?
Biber D. et al. (2007). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.