27 Jul The dreaded tag question
By James Jenkin
A tag question (or question tag) is a question added to a declarative sentence: You like grammar, don’t you?
Course books force students to learn tag questions – and usually all forms and uses at the same time. But learners find them immensely difficult to get right, even in multiple-choice tests with time to think (Syamsiah, 2011).
Many varieties of English solve the problem by using a universal tag: is it? in Hong Kong and Singapore, and isn’t it? in India and West Africa (Crystal, 2003).
Why do students have such difficulty with tag questions? How can teachers help? And do students need to learn them at all?
Tag questions are complicated
When forming a tag question, students need to think of a lot of things at once:
• ‘polarity’: if the main part of the sentence is positive, the tag is usually negative, and vice versa
• choice of auxiliary verb: the tag repeats the auxiliary, or uses ‘do’ to replace a lexical verb
• agreement: the auxiliary needs to agree with the predicate verb in number and tense
• intonation: it can rise or fall, depending on whether it’s a ‘real question’
The meaning associated with this last point is slippery. Grammars usually state something like ‘If we really want to know something, and are not sure of the answer – we use a rising intonation … If the tag is not a real question – if we are sure of the answer – we use a falling intonation’ (Swan, 2002:479).
This gives learners three levels of question: ‘normal’ questions, tag questions where we’re ‘not sure’, and tag questions when we’re ‘sure’.
Holmes (1995:80) suggests the main purpose of tag questions is in fact pragmatic. She proposes two categories: epistemic modal and affective.
Epistemic modal tags ‘express genuine speaker uncertainty’, while affective tags have a social function, in particular to invite the other person to contribute (You just got back from overseas, didn’t you?) or to soften a statement or request (You couldn’t give me a hand, could you?).
How can teachers help?
There’s an alternative to making students learn an infinite number of combinations, like a mathematical puzzle. Instead, students can first learn ‘affective’ uses of tags, as set formulas, and within social contexts.
• to make small talk, ‘adjective + isn’t it’ (with falling intonation): Busy/Hot/Crowded, isn’t it? (Socially, this requires a positive response: e.g. Sure is!)
• to find something you’ve misplaced: You haven’t seen (my phone), have you?
• to make a request: You couldn’t (carry these for me), could you?
Do learners need to learn tags at all?
Interestingly, canonical question tags are rarer than course books might suggest, and not only in emerging World Englishes. US speakers seem to use tags about a fifth as often as speakers of UK English (Tottie & Hoffmann, 2006:287).
There’s always another way of expressing the same semantic and pragmatic meaning of a tag question, that’s just as natural and much easier to master. For example, to build common ground with a person, instead of You’re a teacher, aren’t you (with falling intonation) we can say I seem to remember you’re a teacher or I think you said you were a teacher.
Students don’t need to master the whole tag question system at once. They can learn restricted uses within meaningful contexts. And they can learn alternatives that are easier to use, so they can get on in social situations without worrying about auxiliaries and agreement.
Crystal, D. (2003). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Holmes, J. (1995). Women, Men and Politeness. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Swan, M. (2002). Practical English Usage. Oxford University Press.
Syamsiah, E. (2011) An analysis of the difficulties faced by students in learning question tags. Paper presented at State Islamic University Syarif Hidayatullah.
Tottie, G. & Hoffmann, S. (2006). Tag questions in British and American English. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(4), pp.283-311.
James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.
Image source: shutterstock.com/Asier Romero