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Question Tags

A question tag or tag question is a fragment of a question added to the end of a normal non-interrogative sentence to make it interrogative. For instance:

You go to St. Paul’s, don’t you?
Tom Cruise is forty five, isn’t he?
Harry married again, didn’t he?
Help me move it, will you?


These tags are known to most of the native English speakers, but some non-native speakers may err. For instance, if you check my previous post on silly English errors, you will find some Indians using question tags incorrectly.

Tags usually appear in spoken discourse rather than written. In written discourse, the authors use tags in dialogs.

Rules of Question Tags

Question tags, except in certain special cases (see below), are formed from the auxiliary verb in the main sentence and the main subject’s pronoun form. Find out the auxiliary verb of the sentence, negate it, and add it with the pronoun form at the end of the sentence. For instance:

He did it, didn’t he?
Jim didn’t do it, did he?
I could do it, couldn’t I?
I have been writing since morning, haven’t I?
(The first auxiliary is ‘have’.)
Jane really works hard, doesn’t she?
(Here the auxiliary verb is do as in “Jane really does work hard,” so negate that.)
We will get the package tomorrow, won’t we?


Special Cases

In certain special cases, the question tags take different forms. Here are some of them.

1. Certain sentences in confrontational or imploring sense use the tags, ‘will you’, ‘won’t you’, ‘would you’, etc. ‘You’ is the default subject in such cases. For instance:

Do it, will you?
Help me in this, could you?
Take care, won’t you?


2. In case of sentences beginning with ‘Let’s’, use ‘shall we?’ as tag.

Let’s get on with it, shall we?

3. ‘Had better’ takes a tag ‘hadn’t’.

You had better work hard on your writing skills, hadn’t you?

The Variations in Spoken Discourse

Usually, the method of adding the tag is “Negative sentences take positive tag, and vice versa,” but in certain cases, the positive sentences may take positive tags. This is mostly in spoken discourse.

I look odd, do I? (When the person speaking this believes that he looks odd.)

Also, when adding tags in spoken discourse, you are at an advantage of being flexible about your feelings. You can express various intonations through tags. For instance:

You couldn’t lend me some money, could you? (Request)
You are having a new baby, are you? (Happiness)


Experiment with tags, mix and match them, but don’t use uncommon tags like:

You are having a baby, isn’t it?

Tag Quiz

Take these tag quizzes and let me know your score:

http://www.better-english.com/grammar/questiontags.htm
http://www.world-english.org/questiontags.htm

Copyright © Lenin Nair 2008

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