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Tag Questions

You speak English, don't you?

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
You are coming,   are n't you?
We have finished,   have n't we?
You do like coffee, do n't you?
You   like coffee, do n't you?
They will help,   wo n't they?
I can come,   can 't I?
We must go,   must n't we?
He should try harder, should n't he?
You   are English, are n't you?
John   was there, was n't he?
Notice:

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
It is n't raining,     is it?
We have never seen   that, have we?
You do n't like   coffee, do you?
They will not help,     will they?
They wo n't report   us, will they?
I can never do   it right, can I?
We must n't tell   her, must we?
He should n't drive   so fast, should he?
You wo n't be   late, will you?
You     are n't English, are you?
John     was not there, was he?
Notice:

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!

Answer a tag question according to the truth of the situation. Your answer reflects the real facts, not (necessarily) the question.

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:

Tag Question Special Cases

Negative adverbs

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:

positive statement
treated as negative statement
positive tag
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?

Intonation

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:

  intonation  
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

Imperatives

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:

Negative-negative tag questions usually sound rather hostile:

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:

Some more special cases

example notes
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:

Now, let's check your understanding of tag questions, shall we?