TAG QUESTIONS

UNDERSTANDING THE FORMATION OF TAG QUESTIONS

Because intonation is so important in forming questions in English, some example questions in this entry are accompanied by diagrams that show their intonation patterns. The diagram is a line that traces the pitch movement throughout the question.

TAG QUESTIONS consist of a tag, which is a short question form, attached to a stem, which is a statement. There exist two main types: opposite polarity and same polarity tag questions.

Opposite polarity tag questions are shown in 1). Notice that the subject in the tag corresponds to the subject in the stem. The tag has the opposite value from the stem: if the stem is positive, then the tag is negative, as in 1a), 1b), and 1c); if the stem is negative, the tag is positive, as is the case in 1d).

StemTag Question
1a) You are going.You are going, aren’t you?
1b) They have done it.They have done it, haven’t they?
1c) Betty can come.Betty can come, can’t she?
1d) He isn’t a vegetarian.He isn’t a vegetarian, is he?

The stems in 1a) and 1b) contain the auxiliary verbs are and have, respectively. In the corresponding tag questions, these same auxiliary verbs are located in the tags but in their negative forms (aren’t, haven’t).

The stem in 1c) has a modal (can), which also appears in the tag but in its negative form (can’t). In 1d), the stem is a negative form of the copular be (isn’t), while the corresponding positive form is appears in the tag.

If the stem in a tag question does not contain an auxiliary verbOpens in new window, a modalOpens in new window, or copular be, then do appears in the tag.

StemTag Question
2) He likes her.He likes her, doesn’t he?

Four types of opposite polarity tag questions occur, depending upon whether the stem is positive or negative and whether the intonation on the tag is falling or rising. These four types are shown in 3).

Tag questions such as 3a) and 3b), in which the tag starts out in the high pitch range and rises at the end, signal that the asker is not completely sure of the answer and is seeking information.

In contrast, tag questions such as 3c) and 3d), in which the pitch on the tag starts high and then falls, assume that the person being asked will assess the situation the same way that the speaker would; that is, the asker expects the interlocutor to agree with the proposition in the stem.

These tag questions often carry the force of a statement, as in 4) and speakers use them in contexts such as 5), in which they have no reason to expect an answer that disagrees with the proposition expressed in the stem.

Questions with negative tags and falling intonation can be formed from sentences with complement clauses if the main verb of the stem indicates that there is good evidence that the complements is true. The complement clause in 6) is in brackets.

Examples of verbs that the speaker uses to indicate the truth of the complements in sentences such as 6) are: appear, believe, expect, guess, imagine, look like, see, seem, and suppose.

Since the asker believes that what is asserted in the complement is probably true, and the person being asked is capable of judging this (and agreeing with the asker), the tag has high pitch that falls.

Both the stem and the tag are positive in same polarity tag questions. One common type of same polarity tag question is shown in 7). It typically has a low pitch that jumps up on the tag. It is often preceded by oh or so and indicates that the speaker has inferred or reached a conclusion that is expressed in the stem. Same polarity tag questions are often perceived as sarcastic statements.

It is also possible to use a tag to form an emphatic imperative statement that conveys urgency, as the case is in 8a). This same structure can serve as polite request, as in 8b) and 8c), or a suggestion, as is in 8d).

All of the examples in 8) have the form of regular tag questions. The first element of each tag question, a modal, has a lowe lower pitch that rises to the second element, the pronoun you or we.

Same polarity tag questions may have a verb in the tag that is different from the verb in the stem, as the case is in 9a), 9b), and 9c). Typically, a verb like know, remember, see, or understand appears in the tag.

Notice that in 9a), 9b) and 9c), the tags themselves seem to be shortened forms of the tag questions You remember that, don’t you? You know that, don’t you? and You see that, don’t you? respectively.

Similarly, in 9d), in which the tag does not have a verb, right can be considered a shortened form of That’s right, isn’t it? Depending upon the tone the speaker uses and the context in which it is uttered, this kind of same polarity tag question functions as an admonition, a reminder, an instruction, or a request for feedback to ensure that the listener understands the speaker.

Tag questions are sometimes used as exclamations. Here the tag seems almost unnecessary, but is added in hopes of eliciting agreement from the person(s) addressed. The intonation moves from high to low at the end, as shown in 10).

A British English equivalent of the American exclamatory tag shown in 10) is innit. The speaker who says, Bit old, this program, innit! is making a statement that in his or her opinion this program is a bit old, and he or she assumes this should be obvious to the person addressed, so we have a pitch fall on it.

A fairly recent variation on the tag question as exclamation in American English is the or what tag placed after a yes/no question, as shown in 11). Sentences with or what tags do not ask for information, but instead demand agreement from the person to whom they are addressed. Thus the speaker who utters 11a) believes that of course this is a great idea. Here the pitch jumps up on what with little or no fall.