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Author Topic: Saying Our Tag Questions Right  (Read 375 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 22, 2017, 06:40:34 PM »

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 won’t 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 a desired response more quickly from our listeners.

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. Of course, since tag questions are meant to be spoken, 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.)

Some of us will probably recall that there are actually three ways of forming tag questions depending on the kind of verb used in the main statement. 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?” “Manila isn’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?

We must be aware, though, 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 way 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 among 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?

We will take up other special cases and other fine aspects of tag questions next.

Next: Departures from the Tag-Questions Rules (January 24, 2017)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 114 of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

Departures from the rules for tag questions
Getting the hang of tricky contracted tag questions
« Last Edit: March 02, 2017, 01:58:29 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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