There’s a Lot to Remember When Teaching Tag Questions, Isn’t There?

 

·         Remember the “magnet rule” of opposites: If the statement is positive (affirmative), the tag is negative. If the statement is negative, the tag is positive (affirmative.)

You know the answer, don’t you? (+ / -)

You don’t know the answer, do you? (- /+)

 

·         Clarify which auxiliary verbs are used to form the tag.  Use the first auxiliary verb from the main statement. It should be a form of BE or HAVE or a modal verb (can, could, will, would, should, etc.) If the statement is in the simple present or simple past tense and BE isn’t the main verb, use a form of DO.

 

She hadn’t studied grammar before, had she?                                  

= use of HAD

She’s hardworking student, isn’t she?                                                   

= use of BE

She’ll have learned a lot by the end of the course, won’t she?   

= use of first auxiliary verb

She has a gift for languages, doesn’t she?                                           

= use of DO

 

·         Note unexpected pronoun pairings.

1.     AM I NOT? is a formal tag. In everyday English, the tag AREN’T I? is preferred: I’m right, aren’t I? (Formal: I am right, am I not?)

2.     Demonstrative pronouns THIS/ THAT in the main statement require IT in the tag: This is yours, isn’t it?

3.     Demonstrative pronouns THESE/ THOSE in the main statement require THEY in the tag: Those don’t work, do they?

4.     THERE as a pronoun in the main statement requires THERE in the tag: There isn’t enough time, is there?

5.     Indefinite pronouns for people (both, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, etc.) in the main statement generally call for THEY in the tag: Nobody complained, did they?

 

·         Teach purpose and intonation together. Tag questions elicit a yes-no answer (or “I don’t know.”) Why are the questions asked? Grammar sources commonly identify two main purposes: to confirm information or to seek agreement. However, when you really take the time to think of all the situations in which you might use tag questions, those two main purposes divide further and a third main purpose appears:

 

TO CONFIRM = You are asking a real question. >> Rising intonation.

1.     To verify information. = Today’s March 25, isn’t it?

2.     To start a conversation. = Excuse me. You work at BU, don’t you? I think we’ve met.

 

TO SEEK AGREEMENT = You don’t really need or expect an answer. >> Falling intonation.

1.     You are certain that your information is correct. You want your listener to acknowledge this. = What are you afraid of? We went bungee jumping together last summer, didn’t we?* Sky diving will be just as fun!

2.     You are certain of your opinion, but you want your listener to agree with it. = That was an amazing experience, wasn’t it?

 

* Could be said with rising intonation if the listener seems to have forgotten.

 

TO MAKE A REQUEST = You hope for compliance. >> Rising intonation.

1.     To make an informal request. = Give me a hand with this, would you?

2.     To make an urgent request out of annoyance. = Quit bugging me, will you?

3.     To make a polite request or offer. = Please join us, won’t you?

4.     To make an invitation or suggestion. = Let’s eat, shall we?

 

·         Note the use of imperatives followed by tag questions.  As seen above, tag questions that follow imperatives make use of WILL or WOULD. Let’s requires SHALL in the tag.

 

·         Note informal tags. Students are bound to encounter the use of informal tags, so we might as well point them out for what they are. Examples:

You’re coming, right?

Don’t tell anyone, okay?

This is really exciting, you know?

(I don’t like typing this next one, but it’s out there.)

That’s the truth, ain’t it?

 

17 Comments Add yours

  1. esvies says:

    Привет из России! On the subject of questions tags, which intonation pattern (falling or rising) should be used in questions tags as reminders, as in this example – “You won’t forget to post my letter, will you?” Thanks in advance.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      The general rule is to decide whether the tag is a real question (speaker expects answer) or just a comment. I identified three purposes: to confirm, to seek agreement, and to make a request. In your example, the speaker already made the request at some point in the past. Now the speaker wants to confirm that the listener will do as s/he promised. There’s uncertainty about whether the listener will remember. Either way you look at it – a need for confirmation or a degree of uncertainty – the tag dictates rising intonation. (Hope that helps!)

  2. esvies says:

    fair enough, thanks a lot!!!

  3. Lucy says:

    Hi,
    I have a doubt related with the indefinite pronouns such as someone, no one or anyone. In my understanding those pronouns are used for singular statements. Is this sentence correct?
    Someone made a question, didn’t he?
    Thanks for your help.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      It’s true that agreement can be a tricky issue. In fact, writers sometimes avoid hurdles rather than jumping them. We can usually rewrite a sentence to avoid a confusing or awkward point. In your example, we could get away with one of these variations:
      1. I think someone asked a question.
      2. Didn’t someone ask a question?
      3. The class still has some questions, don’t they?

      My understanding is that what was once considered incorrect is now acceptable in informal English/ everyday speech.
      a. Everybody understands, don’t they? (acceptable, but considered informal)
      b. Everybody understands, doesn’t he? (correct since the rules state these compound pronouns take singular forms)

      The other issue to bear in mind is gender equality. That has led to phrases like HE OR SHE/ (S)HE/ HIS OR HER/ etc.
      c. Everyone must assume responsibility for his or her work.

      I think the use of plural forms is becoming more widespread. It’s simpler and doesn’t favor one gender over the other:
      d. Everyone must assume responsibility for their work, (mustn’t they?)

      It’s awkward using a tag question on statement C.
      I’d avoid it.
      e. Everyone must assume responsibility for his or her work. Is that not correct?

      Hope that helps!

  4. This was a Fantastic blog post, I will bookmark this post in my Diigo account. Have a good day.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I’m glad you liked it! It took a lot of effort to finish my video series on YouTube on this tricky topic. Thanks for commenting.

  5. melonbeswas says:

    I want to know more gorgeous things.

    1. Well, I don’t know about “gorgeous”, but I can certainly try for “useful”. 🙂

  6. MrPravinz says:

    very good teacher eh🙂 thx😉

    1. Thank you for the support.

  7. faruk hossain says:

    it well

    1. Thank you for visiting my blog.

  8. Shahriar Sumon, Assistant Professor, Jessore, Bangladesh. says:

    Your teaching of Tag Questions is nice. Thanks.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Kind regards!

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