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Question Tags in English Grammar

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Posing a question.

Question tags are used at the end of sentences when we want to check something, when we want someone to do something or when we want to show surprise. They are separated from the main question by a comma:

You’re English, aren’t you?

You’ve got five minutes to spare, haven’t you?

You’re not going to leave, are you?

Form & Construction

Making a question tag is fairly straightforward and if you are teaching this to your TEFL class it can broken down into a couple of simple steps.

1) is the statement positive or negative?

To make a question tag, the first step is identifying if the statement is positive or negative.

positive statement > negative question tag

She will be late, won’t she?
It’s good, isn’t it?

negative statement > positive question tag

She won’t be late, will she?
It’s bad, isn’t it?

Note that in the last example the statement is considered negative even though it doesn’t have a not in it. This means it’s the meaning which is important: is it a negative or positive meaning?

You can offer your class a bunch of statements and soon they will be able to tell you if they’re positive or negative. As said above, the question tag is opposite to the main statement.

2) does the statement have an auxiliary or modal verb?

You might have to quickly go over these kinds of verbs with your class but simply put, does the main statement have

  • an auxiliary*: be, have, do
  • a modal: can, could, dare, need, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would

* although not strictly speaking an auxiliary verb, this group also includes be when it’s used as a copula and do when it’s used as a transitive verb.

If they do have a modal or auxiliary then the question tag is formed like this (the modal/auxiliary is shown in italics):

{positive statement} + {auxiliary/modal verb} + not + {subject}

She was here, wasn’t she?
It can be verified, can‘t it?

For negative statements we use the same form but without not:

{negative statement} + {auxiliary/modal verb} + {subject}

She wasn’t here, was she?
It cannot be verified, can it?

statements with no auxiliary or modal verb

If there is no auxiliary or modal in the statement, we use do in the tag instead of the auxiliary/modal (the verb is shown in italics):

{statement} + {do} + [not] + {subject}

She likes me, doesn’t she?
She didn’t like me, did she?

They stayed, didn’t they?
They didn’t stay, did they?

Using Question Tags

We use question tags in three ways:

to verify information

When we are fairly certain of a fact and want merely to check it, we can use a question tag:

You’re a Sagittarius, aren’t you?
She isn’t French, is she?

If we are not too sure of the answer we might have rising intonation at the end and use a question mark in writing. However, if we are almost 100% sure of the fact and are just checking we might not use rising intonation and in writing we might not use a question mark.

to seek agreement

When we are looking for someone to agree with what we say; it’s like asking for reassurance.

He’s ugly, isn’t he?
You’re clever, aren’t you? Can you help me with my homework?

The intonation here is less; it may be completely flat. Again, the question mark may or may not be used depending on the level of uncertainty.

to show negative surprise

When we cannot really believe something is true – we use this only in negative sentences:

You’re not marrying her, are you?
She isn’t still talking, is she?

Notes

After let’s… and offers & suggestions we use shall

Let’s go, shall we?

After imperatives we use will/would/can/could

Leave us for a moment, would you?

Useful Links

Verifying Tags‏‎ – an activity to help students with tags used for verifying information.

Auxiliary Verbs‏‎ in English – more about auxiliary verbs.

Modal Verbs‏‎ in English – more about modal verbs.

 

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