In social gatherings, we can identify English-proficient people right away by the correct and graceful way they phrase their âtag questions.â These are the questions they ask at the tail end of what they have just saidâquestions that are meant to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners, like the two-word question attached to this statement: âYou chose that incompetent manager, didnât you?â 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 donât 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 weekâs 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)
Saying our tag questions right
A good indicator of oneâs English proficiency is the ability to use tag questions properly. But waitâwe all know what âtag questionsâ are, donât we all? Well, if some of us donât or have already forgotten, the mini-question âdonât we all?â in the preceding sentence is whatâs called a tag question. Some grammarians prefer to call it a âquestion tag,â and the whole statement inclusive of that mini-question the âtag question.â For our purposes, however, we will refer to the mini-question as the tag question itself, or âtagâ 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, itâs normal to use contractions of the negative forms of verbs either in the tag question or in the main statement itself.
Hereâs a quick drill to jog our rusty memories about the grammar of tags. From the positive standpoint: âShe is, isnât she?â âThey do, donât they?â âWe can, canât we?â âYou are Filipino, arenât you?â And from the negative standpoint: âShe doesnât, does she?â âThey donât, do they?â âWe canât, can we?â âYou arenât Filipino, are you?â
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 âbe,â the same form of that verb must be used in the tag question: âHe is from Manila, isnât he?â âWe arenât that bad, are we?â âThey were of foreign origin, werenât they?â Second, if a main statement uses a modal such as âcan,â âcould,â or âshould,â the same modal must be used in tag question: âShe can dance, canât she?â âThey couldnât do that, could they?â âWe shouldnât interfere in their affairs, should we?â And third, if the main statement uses an active verb (instead of only an auxiliary verb), the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb âdoâ takes the place of that active verb in the tag question: âShe loves you, doesnât she?â âYou take me for granted, donât you?â âThey played the part, didnât they?â
We will recall, too, that when a main statement has a proper name as subject, the tag question must use its pronoun instead: âJennifer is doing well in Singapore, isnât she?â âManila isnât the tourist capital in Asia these days, is it?â âSome Australians eat kangaroo meat, donât they?â âNestle is the biggest food company in the world, isnât it?â
Special cases of tag questions
We must be aware, however, that some special cases of English-language tag questions donât strictly follow the norms that we have just discussed. Here are two such tags that seemingly look and sound askew: âLetâs go out, shall we?â âLetâs not go out, shall we?â 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 âLetâs go out, shall we?â is, of course, âWeâll go out, shanât we?â, but it sounds stiff and unnatural. Here are two natural-sounding alternatives that should sit in well with Filipinos: âLetâs go out, all right?â âLetâs go out, okay?â
Another notable special case involving tags is the whole range of statements that use ânothing,â ânobody,â and âno oneâ as their subject. In such cases, the statements should be considered of negative polarity, and their tag questions should be given a positive polarity: âNothing came in the mail, was there?â âNobody bothered you last night, was there?â âNo one wants this, is there?â
Here are a few more tags that donât scrupulously follow that polarity rule: âIâm correct, arenât I?â (Not âIâm correct, amnât I?â The awkward tag âamnât Iâ is âam I not?â in contracted form, which is unacceptable grammar). âSheâd better take it, hadnât she?â (Not âSheâd better take it, wouldnât she?â The tag âhadnât she?â is actually âhad she better not?â in contracted form. That tag is the logical polar negative of the full statement âShe had better take it,â where the operative verb form is âhad better,â not âtake.â). âThis will do, wonât it?â (Not âThis will do, willenât it?ââwhich uses a tag that doesnât exist in English. Conversely, the reverse-polarity statement will be âThis wonât do, will it?â)
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: âYou think youâre indispensable, do you?â âOh, you will really do that, will you?â âOh, she really left him, did she?â âSo youâre finally getting married, are you? Thatâs great!â (Or the contrary sentiment: âSo sheâs finally getting married, is she? The nerve!â) âAnd you think thatâs amusing, do you?â And then, as a mark of politeness, positive tags can also be routinely attached to positive requests: âCome here, will you?â âDo that, will you?â âPlease hand me that screw driver, will you?â
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: âSo you donât love me at all, donât you?â âYou really didnât like the idea, didnât you?â âSo you donât think my school is good enough, donât you?â âSo you didnât want peace after all, didnât you?â 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 donât know the people being addressed. It is rude, for instance, to simply approach or accost at the mall someone we donât know and ask, pointblank, âWhereâs the womenâs room?â The civilized way, of course, is to restate that question to the needed degree of politeness, depending on who is being addressed.
Hereâs that same question said a little bit more politely, addressed to people of about the same age or social station as the speaker: âDo you know where the womenâs room is?â (A tag question isnât 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: âYou wouldnât know where the womenâs room is, would you?â (This time, the question form âDo you know...?â 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: âYou donât know of any job openings in your company at this time, do you?â âYou donât happen to know where the stock exchange building is, do you?â âYou wouldnât be willing to lose all that money in gambling, would you?â âYou havenât got anything to do with what happened, do you?â âYou canât spare me a thousand for my sonâs tuition, can you?â âYou canât believe it that the womanâs leading the race, can you?â
The beauty of negative statements with positive tag questions is that they subtly prime up the listenerâs 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 otherâs goodness of heart and of cushioning a possible blow to oneâs 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 âEnglish Plain and Simpleâ by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, issues of May 24 and 31, 2004 Â© 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.