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Author Topic: Departures from the Rules for Tag Questions  (Read 509 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: January 23, 2017, 08:24:53 PM »

We will continue our discussion of some notable departures from the usual positive-negative and negative-positive rule for forming tags, or those mini-questions purposively added by speakers at the end of their statements to get a quick confirmation or denial from their listeners. That general rule is, of course, that a positive statement should be followed by a negative tag, and a negative statement should be followed by a positive tag: “She’s winning, isn’t she?” “They’re not conceding, are they?” “We’ll not get into trouble for this, would we?


Now, 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?”—a tag that doesn’t exist in English. Conversely, the reverse-polarity statement will be “This won’t do, will it?”)  

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’s 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.

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 on 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 is not used in such cases.) Now here it is in a polite, non-aggressive 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 “You wouldn’t 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. Whatever the answer might be, nobody should lose face in this classic communication gambit of appealing to the other’s goodness of heart and of cushioning a possible blow to his or her self-esteem.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 115 of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

Saying our tag questions right
Getting the hang of tricky contracted tag questions

« Last Edit: January 23, 2018, 10:19:36 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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