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English grammar notes - auxiliaries - question tags


statement + tag:(auxiliary + subject) + ?

Your name's David, isn't it?
You like fish, don't you?
He's not coming to the meeting, is he?
It's a bit cold in here, isn't it?


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General usage

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We can use question tags to check something we believe to be true.


I am fairly sure his name is David, but I'm not 100 per cent certain, so I say,
Your name's David, isn't it?

I think he likes fish, but I'm not absolutely sure, so I say,
You like fish, don't you?

I don't think he's coming to the meeting, so I say,
He's not coming to the meeting, is he?

Note: If the first part is grammatically positive, the tag is usually negative; if the first part is grammatically negative, the tag is usually positive.


Degrees of certainty and intonation

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The intonation of the tag can change. It depends how sure you are of the information you want to check.

If you are very certain of something, the intonation of the tag falls:

You were here yesterday (I'm almost a hundred per cent sure), weren't you? (falling intonation)
You're expecting the person to say 'yes'.

If you are less certain, and you think the answer might be 'no', the intonation of the tag rises:
You were here yesterday, weren't you? (rising intonation)


Inviting agreement

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Sometimes we use question tags to express an idea and invite other people to agree with us. We are not really asking a question:

It's cold in here, isn't it?
You are not asking whether it is cold. You think it is cold. You want the other speaker to agree.

(It's a) Lovely day, isn't it?


Responses to question tags

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The use of 'yes' and 'no' here can be tricky.

When the first speaker is right
If the person responding agrees with the speaker, they follow the grammar of the tag and use 'yes' for a positive, 'no' for a negative.

In the following examples, speaker 1 (S1) is correct and speaker 2 (S2) confirms that:

S1: You're David, aren't you?
S2: Yes, I am.

S1: You don't live here, do you?
S2: No, I don't.

Note in the last example, S2 says 'No' (I don't), meaning that S1 is correct.

When the first speaker is wrong

If the statement is positive, it's possible to answer with 'no'

S1: You're David, aren't you?
S2: (No) I'm not, actually. I'm Michael.

But if the statement is negative, it is not usual to answer with 'yes'
S1: You don't live here, do you?
S2: I do actually. I live just across the road.

If the person responding does not agree with the speaker, they do not always use 'yes' or 'no'. Often some other word or phrase is used to show contradiction.
In the examples below, 'actually' + some other evidence ('I'm Michael'; 'I live just across the road') are used.


Double positives : positive statement, postive tag

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Sometimes, the normal rules (positive statement - negative tag; negative statement - positive tag) do not apply:

Suggestions with 'Let's'

Let's go for a drink, shall we?

Some requests with will / won't
When we make a request starting with an imperative, it's common to use a positive tag:

Give me a hand, will you?
Shut the door, will you?


Other exceptions

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I am....aren't I?

When you make a statement in the first person (I) and the verb to be, the tag is
aren't I?. It is true that amn't I? would be logical, but it doesn't exist.

Note The slang term ain't is not the tag for 'I am'.

More on this topic


Auxiliaries - question tags
Ten-question MC quiz


Grammar Challenge - question tags
Short radio BBC radio programme about question tags. MP3download available.

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