Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

Good conversationalists phrase their tag questions with finesse

In social gatherings, we can identify English-proficient people right away by the correct and graceful way they phrase their “tag questions.” These are the questions they ask at the tail end of what they have just said—questions that are meant to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners, like the two-word question attached to this statement: “You chose that incompetent manager, didn’t you?” Honestly now, how good are you in framing your own tag questions? Do you ask them confidently and flawlessly, or are you sometimes still seized with self-doubt and falter when coming up with them?

In a two-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, I discussed the general grammatical pattern for tag questions, the three ways of forming them, and the special cases of tag questions that don’t follow the general pattern. To help Forum members and guests achieve greater mastery in asking tag questions during their conversations, I have combined the two essays into one and posted it in this week’s edition of the Forum.

I trust that reading the essay will help make you a more polished speaker in English and a more confident and graceful conversationalist. (November 27, 2010)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

Saying our tag questions right

A good indicator of one’s English proficiency is the ability to use tag questions properly. But wait—we all know what “tag questions” are, don’t we all? Well, if some of us don’t or have already forgotten, the mini-question “don’t we all?” in the preceding sentence is what’s called a tag question. Some grammarians prefer to call it a “question tag,” and the whole statement inclusive of that mini-question the “tag question.” For our purposes, however, we will refer to the mini-question as the tag question itself, or “tag” for short; we will not quibble over the terminology. The important thing is for us to fully appreciate and understand how native English speakers purposively use tag questions to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners. With that, we should be able to form English tag questions ourselves with greater confidence, using them flawlessly to emphasize our thoughts and ideas and to elicit the desired response from our listeners.

The general pattern for tag questions

Most of us will probably recall that tag questions generally follow a definite pattern: a positive statement is followed by a negative tag question, and a negative statement is followed by a positive tag question. Since tags are meant to be spoken, of course, it’s normal to use contractions of the negative forms of verbs either in the tag question or in the main statement itself.

Here’s a quick drill to jog our rusty memories about the grammar of tags. From the positive standpoint: “She is, isn’t she?” “They do, don’t they?” “We can, can’t we?” “You are Filipino, aren’t you?” And from the negative standpoint: “She doesn’t, does she?” “They don’t, do they?” “We can’t, can we?” “You aren’t Filipino, are you?”

We can see that the tag questions above are all of opposite polarity to that of the main statement. Also, we must keep in mind that without exception, the verb in a tag question always has the same tense as the verb in the main statement. (In speech, we must note here, there should always be a brief pause between the main statement and the tag question; in writing, this brief pause must always be indicated by a comma between the main statement and the tag question.)

Three ways of forming tag questions

Some of us will probably recall that depending on the kind of verb used in the main statement, there are actually three ways of forming tag questions. First, if that verb is a form of the auxiliary verb “be,” the same form of that verb must be used in the tag question: “He is from Manila, isn’t he?” “We aren’t that bad, are we?” “They were of foreign origin, weren’t they?” Second, if a main statement uses a modal such as “can,” “could,” or “should,” the same modal must be used in tag question: “She can dance, can’t she?” “They couldn’t do that, could they?” “We shouldn’t interfere in their affairs, should we?” And third, if the main statement uses an active verb (instead of only an auxiliary verb), the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb “do” takes the place of that active verb in the tag question: “She loves you, doesn’t she?” “You take me for granted, don’t you?” “They played the part, didn’t they?” 

We will recall, too, that when a main statement has a proper name as subject, the tag question must use its pronoun instead: “Jennifer is doing well in Singapore, isn’t she?” “Manilaisn’t the tourist capital in Asia these days, is it?” “Some Australians eat kangaroo meat, don’t they?” “Nestle is the biggest food company in the world, isn’t it?”

Special cases of tag questions

We must be aware, however, that some special cases of English-language tag questions don’t strictly follow the norms that we have just discussed. Here are two such tags that seemingly look and sound askew: “Let’s go out, shall we?” “Let’s not go out, shall we?” Are the tags here proper or not? Yes, they are. Even if these tags often raise the hackles of grammar purists, native English speakers accept and use both of them. The strictly grammatical to say “Let’s go out, shall we?” is, of course, “We’ll go out, shan’t we?”, but it sounds stiff and unnatural. Here are two natural-sounding alternatives that should sit in well with Filipinos: “Let’s go out, all right?” “Let’s go out, okay?”

Another notable special case involving tags is the whole range of statements that use “nothing,” “nobody,” and “no one” as their subject. In such cases, the statements should be considered of negative polarity, and their tag questions should be given a positive polarity: “Nothing came in the mail, was there?” “Nobody bothered you last night, was there?” “No one wants this, is there?”

Here are a few more tags that don’t scrupulously follow that polarity rule: “I’m correct, aren’t I?” (Not “I’m correct, amn’t I?” The awkward tag “amn’t I” is “am I not?” in contracted form, which is unacceptable grammar). “She’d better take it, hadn’t she?” (Not “She’d better take it, wouldn’t she?” The tag “hadn’t she?” is actually “had she better not?” in contracted form. That tag is the logical polar negative of the full statement “She had better take it,” where the operative verb form is “had better,” not “take.”). “This will do, won’t it?” (Not “This will do, willen’t it?”—which uses a tag that doesn’t exist in English. Conversely, the reverse-polarity statement will be “This won’t do, will it?”) 

Tag questions that ignore the opposite polarity rule

Another exception about tags that bewilders many nonnative English speakers is this: the opposite polarity rule can actually be pointedly ignored when people want to strongly express sarcasm, disbelief, surprise, concern, shock, or anger. Take the following examples: “You think you’re indispensable, do you?” “Oh, you will really do that, will you?” “Oh, she really left him, did she?” “So you’re finally getting married, are you? That’s great!” (Or the contrary sentiment: “So she’s finally getting married, is she? The nerve!”) “And you think that’s amusing, do you?” And then, as a mark of politeness, positive tags can also be routinely attached to positive requests: “Come here, will you?” “Do that, will you?” “Please hand me that screw driver, will you?”

When people use negative statements with negative tag questions, on the other hand, it is not necessarily bad grammar but a sure sign of the breakdown of civility or of downright hostility and combativeness: “So you don’t love me at all, don’t you?” “You really didn’t like the idea, didn’t you?” “So you don’t think my school is good enough, don’t you?” “So you didn’t want peace after all, didn’t you?” The negative tags emphasize the negativeness of the main statement to deliberately rile people or to make them feel guilty. They give vent to feelings of meanness.

Negative statements with positive tag questions

Now, from experience, we all know that using negative statements with positive tag questions in the standard manner is the polite, socially acceptable way of asking for information or help. Such statements are particularly useful if we don’t know the people being addressed. It is rude, for instance, to simply approach or accost at the mall someone we don’t know and ask, pointblank, “Where’s the women’s room?” The civilized way, of course, is to restate that question to the needed degree of politeness, depending on who is being addressed.

Here’s that same question said a little bit more politely, addressed to people of about the same age or social station as the speaker: “Do you know where the women’s room is?” (A tag question isn’t used in such cases.) Now here it is in a polite, nonaggressive form, this time addressed to people older or of a higher social station than us: “You wouldn’t know where the women’s room is, would you?” (This time, the question form “Do you know...?” and the tag question that follows make the statement sufficiently deferential.)

Here are a few more patterns of negative statements with positive tag questions, the use of which should make us more pleasant, convivial people to deal with: “You don’t know of any job openings in your company at this time, do you?” “You don’t happen to know where the stock exchange building is, do you?” “You wouldn’t be willing to lose all that money in gambling, would you?” “You haven’t got anything to do with what happened, do you?” “You can’t spare me a thousand for my son’s tuition, can you?” “You can’t believe it that the woman’s leading the race, can you?”

The beauty of negative statements with positive tag questions is that they subtly prime up the listener’s mind either to accept the given idea or to decline it quickly and gracefully; in fact, refusing to answer the positive tag questions at all actually will make the person being addressed look rude and impolite. In this classic communication gambit of appealing to the other’s goodness of heart and of cushioning a possible blow to one’s self-esteem before that blow is even inflicted, nobody should lose face whatever the answer might be. (May 24 and 31, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, issues of May 24 and 31, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Click here to discuss/comment

Previously Featured Essay:

Problems with long noun forms

A reader in India, Surajit Dasgupta, had asked me for advice on how to deal with the problems he was encountering with long noun forms:

“Would you please take up how to deal with sentences with long subjects in your column? I frequently come across this situation, as in this example: ‘Isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations have been reported.’

“How do I reduce the length of the subject?

“In one of your past columns that briefly dealt with this topic, you suggested that the long subject be broken up. I tried it with the sentence above, but the resulting sentence doesn’t sound natural. Look: ‘Isolated instances have been reported of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.’”

My open reply to Surajit:

The problem with sentences with a very long noun form as subject is that the operative verb comes too late to execute the action, making such sentences confusing and difficult to read.

Let’s closely examine the example presented: “Isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations have been reported.”

Here, the subject is this 15-word noun phrase, “isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations,” and the operative verb is “have been reported.” By the time we reach the last word of that noun phrase, of course, we may already be gasping for air and may have already forgotten what the subject was all about. We then have to go back to the beginning of the noun phrase to regain our semantic bearings, thus losing time and reading momentum.

This early, however, I must strongly caution against reducing the length of the noun phrase to solve this problem, for it can alter the semantics of the sentence very seriously.

Instead, we should first consider breaking the long noun form into what is called a discontinuous phrase. This will allow the operative verb to be introduced earlier in the sentence so it can execute its action sooner, as was done in the following sentence: “A report without attribution reached the newsroom that the high-flying finance company was about the declare bankruptcy.” This sentence has a little rough edge to it, but it reads and sounds better than the original sentence that allowed the 14-word noun phrase to run its full course before coming up with its operative verb: “A report without attribution that the high-flying finance company was about the declare bankruptcy reached the newsroom.”

The discontinuous-phrase rewrite of Surajit’s sentence, though, doesn’t do as well: “Isolated instances have been reported of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.” It is confusing and it sounds bad because the long noun phrase got disjointed semantically when it was made into a discontinuous phrase.

A much better option in this case is to construct the sentence by using the much-maligned expletive “there” up front: “There have been reports of isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.” This is semantically and structurally superior to the discontinuous-phrase option, but expect many grammarians to frown on it on the ground that using the expletive “there” weakens the action of the operative verb.

That leaves us only one other option: using the active voice for the problematic sentence. It’s the best option really, but it will require the sentence to specify the doer of the action. Assuming that it’s the ANC (the ABS-CBN news channel), we can do the following straightforward construction: “The ANC has reported isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations.”

That sentence looks good and reads very well—strong proof that putting sentences in the active voice is our best option for dealing with problems with long noun forms. (June 18, 2007)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 18, 2007 issue © 2007 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Click here to discuss/comment

Click to read more essays (requires registration to post)

Copyright © 2010 by Aperture Web Development. All rights reserved.

Page best viewed with:

Mozilla FirefoxGoogle Chrome

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Valid CSS!

Page last modified: 27 November, 2010, 5:00 p.m.