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  Tag questions in English

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Tag questions in English


  Test yourself:  Tag question test with correction and explanations

What are tag questions, and when are they used?

1. Definition and function

Tag questions - also referred to as question tags -  are very common, particularly in spoken English. They are short interrogative tags that can be added to the end of a declarative statement. Tags are usually added to a statement in order to express opinion, possibility or probability. Although they use an interrogative structure, tags are not real questions. They are requests for confirmation... or sometimes for contradiction.

2.  Tag structures

2.1. Normal structure of tags

 Question tags are normally formed on the model verb > pronoun subject. They are placed at the end of the sentence or clause.  Using a standard interrogative inversion, they repeat the auxiliary used with the main verb and the pronoun corresponding to the subject of the main verb, as in these simple examples
That man is reading a good book, isn't he?
Those students have passed their exams, haven't they ?
They didn't go to London last week, did they?

2.2. Standard tags

 In standard tags, it is important to note that there is always an opposition between affirmation and negation. If the main verb is in the affirmative, the tag will be in the negative :  conversely, if the main verb is in the negative, the tag will be in the affirmative.
That lady is reading a good book, isn't she?
Those students haven't passed their exams, have they ?

2.3. "True-question" tags

 Occasionally, but not often, speakers use "same-way tags", or "true-question" tags where there is no opposition between affirmation and negation. They are normally used in affirmative contexts: in this case both the main verb and the tag are in the affirmative. The speaker is either really asking for an answer, or else expressing doubt about the truth of the statement.
That lady is reading a good book, is she?
   Meaning either: Is that lady actually reading a good book ?
    or: I am really questioning whether that is a good book; I don't think it is.
Those students have passed their exams, have they ?
  Meaning :  Have those students really passed their exams? That's surprising. 
It is important to remember that "same-way tags", or "true-question" tags are not common. It is useful to know that they exist, and what they mean; but students of English are best advised not to use them unless they are really sure that they understand the nuances or implications.

3.  Formation and use of tags

Tags are placed at the end of a statement or sentence; they are formed by repeating the auxiliary (be, have, do - examples 1-6 ) or the modal auxiliary (can, must, might etc. examples 7 - 12) used with the main verb, followed by a pronoun corresponding to the subject of the main verb. As stated in 2.2. above, there is normally an affirmative/negative contrast between the main verb and the tag.  
Examples
  1.  The Queen's over 80, isn't she ?
  2. Those new shoes weren't very expensive, were they ?
  3. You've remembered all the instructions, haven't you ?
  4. The kids hadn't had anything to eat, had they ?
  5. You did remember to turn off the gas, didn't you ?
  6. The secretary didn't like the new boss, did she ?
  7. He can sing quite well, can't he ?
  8. You can't come to the concert tonight, can you?
  9. We shouldn't continue without the guide, should we ?
  10. You really ought to get permission first, oughtn't you?
  11. You couldn't understand anything he said, could you ?
  12. The students really have to work hard, don't they ? *
Note example 12 : tags following the modal auxiliary "have to" (as opposed to the past auxiliary have) are forms of the auxiliary do, not have, even if the main verb is in the affirmative.
  If the main verb does not use an auxiliary (i.e it is in the simple present or simple past tense), the tag will be formed using a form of the auxiliary do, just like the interrogative and negative forms of these tenses.
Examples
  1.  The Queen lives in Buckingham Palace, doesn't she ?
  2. Those new shoes look very expensive, don't they ?
  3. You remembered all the instructions, didn't you ?
  4. You went to school in London, didn't you?
  5. This one looks rather interesting, doesn't it.
  6. People who eat too much get fat, don't they ?
Note example 6 : the tag reflects the main verb of the sentence of course; get  not eat..
  If the main verb is accompanied by several auxiliaries, including modal auxiliaries, the tag reflects back to the first of the auxiliaries used.
Examples
  1. The Queen might have been in Buckingham Palace, mightn't she ?
  2. You should have been paying more attention, shouldn't you ?
  3. They could have lost all their money in Las Vegas, couldn't they ?
  4. He ought to have been able to answer all the questions, oughtn't he?
  5. He might have had to buy a new computer, mightn't he ?
  6. They can't have had to stop already, can they ?<
   Used with reported speech and similar structures, it is important to remember that the tag reflects the main verb of the sentence, not the verb of the reported speech.
Examples
  1. He said you were very clever, didn't he ?
  2. It looks like we ought to be getting out of here quickly, doesn't it ?
  3. They didn't think it was particularly easy, did they ?
  4. The judge believes that the accused is innocent, doesn't he ?
  5. You were telling us about what you did in New York, weren't you ?
  6. You don't think there's anything wrong with my idea, do you ?

Alternative form of negative tags

Just occasionally people express negative tags without contracting the word NOT to n't.
IMPORTANT !  In uncontracted tags, the word order is different, as NOT follows the verb: Compare the following:
It's good, isn't it / It's good, is it not ?
They're very late, aren't they / They're very late, are they not ?
You've seen the exhibition, haven't you / You've seen the exhibition, have you not ?
These uncontracted tags are used commonly in Scotland, but not in England.

See also

Cette page en français: ►
Les questions tags en anglais

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