A tag question is a special construction in English. It is a statement followed by a mini-question. We use tag questions to ask for confirmation. They mean something like: "Is that right?" or "Do you agree?" They are very common in English.
The basic structure of a tag question is:
|positive statement||negative tag|
|Snow is white,||isn't it?|
|negative statement||positive tag|
|You don't like me,||do you?|
Notice that the tag repeats the auxiliary verb (or main verb when be) from the statement and changes it to negative or positive.
Positive Statement Tag Questions
Look at these examples with positive statements. You will see that most of the time, the auxiliary verb from the positive statement is repeated in the tag and changed to negative.
|(+) positive statement||(-) negative tag|
|subject||auxiliary||main verb||auxiliary||not||personal pronoun same as subject|
- the use of do in the two coffee questions. Remember that in Present Simple, do is optional in positive statements (You like coffee/You do like coffee). But the do must appear in the tag. The same applies to Past Simple did.
- in last two questions, no auxiliary for main verb be in Present Simple and Past Simple. The tag repeats the main verb.
Negative Statement Tag Questions
Look at these examples with negative statements. Notice that the negative verb in the original statement is changed to positive in the tag.
|(-) negative statement||(+) positive tag|
|subject||auxiliary||main verb||auxiliary||personal pronoun same as subject|
- won't is the contracted form of will not
- the tag repeats the auxiliary verb, not the main verb. Except, of course, for the verb be in Present Simple and Past Simple.
Answering Tag Questions
How do we answer a tag question? Often, we just say Yes or No. Sometimes we may repeat the tag and reverse it (They don't live here, do they? Yes, they do). Be very careful about answering tag questions. In some languages, an opposite system of answering is used, and non-native English speakers sometimes answer in the wrong way. This can lead to a lot of confusion!
For example, everyone knows that snow is white. Look at these questions, and the correct answers:
|tag question||correct answer||notes|
|Snow is white, isn't it?||Yes (it is).||Answer is same in both cases - because snow is white!||But notice change of stress when answerer does not agree with questioner.|
|Snow isn't white, is it?||Yes it is!|
|Snow is black, isn't it?||No it isn't!||Answer is same in both cases - because snow is not black!|
|Snow isn't black, is it?||No (it isn't).|
In some languages, people answer a question like "Snow isn't black, is it?" with "Yes" (meaning "Yes, I agree with you"). This is the wrong answer in English!
Here are some more examples, with correct answers:
- The moon goes round the earth, doesn't it? Yes, it does.
- The earth is bigger than the moon, isn't it? Yes.
- The earth is bigger than the sun, isn't it? No, it isn't!
- Asian people don't like rice, do they? Yes, they do!
- Elephants live in Europe, don't they? No, they don't!
- Men don't have babies, do they? No.
- The English alphabet doesn't have 40 letters, does it? No, it doesn't.
Tag Question Special Cases
The adverbs never, rarely, seldom, hardly, barely and scarcely have a negative sense. Even though they may be in a positive statement, the feeling of the statement is negative. We treat statements with these words like negative statements, so the question tag is normally positive. Look at these examples:
treated as negative statement
|He never came again,||did he?|
|She can rarely come these days,||can she?|
|You hardly ever came late,||did you?|
|I barely know you,||do I?|
|You would scarcely expect her to know that,||would you?|
We can change the meaning of a tag question with the musical pitch of our voice. With rising intonation, it sounds like a real question. But if our intonation falls, it sounds more like a statement that doesn't require a real answer:
|You don't know where my wallet is,||do you?||/ rising||real question|
|It's a beautiful view,||isn't it?||\ falling||not a real question|
Sometimes we use question tags with imperatives (invitations, orders), but the sentence remains an imperative and does not require a direct answer. We use won't for invitations. We use can, can't, will, would for orders.
|imperative + question tag||notes|
|Take a seat, won't you?||polite invitation|
|Help me, can you?||quite friendly|
|Help me, can't you?||quite friendly (some irritation?)|
|Close the door, would you?||quite polite|
|Do it now, will you.||less polite|
|Don't forget, will you.||with negative imperatives only will is possible|
Same-way tag questions
Although the basic structure of tag questions is positive-negative or negative-positive, it is sometimes possible to use a positive-positive or negative-negative structure. We use same-way tag questions to express interest, surprise, anger etc, and not to make real questions.
Look at these positive-positive tag questions:
- So you're having a baby, are you? That's wonderful!
- She wants to marry him, does she? Some chance!
- So you think that's funny, do you? Think again.
Negative-negative tag questions usually sound rather hostile:
- So you don't like my looks, don't you? (British English)
Asking for information or help
Notice that we often use tag questions to ask for information or help, starting with a negative statement. This is quite a friendly/polite way of making a request. For example, instead of saying "Where is the police station?" (not very polite), or "Do you know where the police station is?" (slightly more polite), we could say: "You wouldn't know where the police station is, would you?" Here are some more examples:
- You don't know of any good jobs, do you?
- You couldn't help me with my homework, could you?
- You haven't got $10 to lend me, have you?
Some more special cases
|I am right, aren't I?||aren't I (not amn't I)|
|You have to go, don't you?||you (do) have to go...|
|I have been answering, haven't I?||use first auxiliary|
|Nothing came in the post, did it?||treat statements with nothing, nobody etc like negative statements|
|Let's go, shall we?||let's = let us|
|He'd better do it, hadn't he?||he had better (no auxiliary)|
Mixed Examples of Tag Questions
Here is a list of examples of tag questions in different contexts. Notice that some are "normal" and others seem to break all the rules:
- But you don't really love her, do you?
- This'll work, won't it?
- Oh you think so, do you?
- Well, I couldn't help it, could I?
- But you'll tell me if she calls, won't you?
- We'd never have known, would we?
- Oh you do, do you?
- The weather's bad, isn't it?
- You won't be late, will you?
- Nobody knows, do they?
- You never come on time, do you?
- You couldn't help me, could you?
- You think you're clever, do you?
- So you don't think I can do it, don't you? (British English)
- Shut up, will you!
- She can hardly love him after all that, can she?
- Nothing will happen, will it?