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English grammar explanations - question-tags.

Understanding how to use questions tags.

The basics - structure:

Question-tags are "mini questions" which confirm something or ask for agreement. They cannot follow other questions; only affirmative statements. The structure of the most common type of question tag is:

Affirmative statement + comma + auxiliary + not (contracted) + pronoun + ?

She likes pizza, doesn't she?
Mary's ill, isn't she?
They're going on holiday today, aren't they?

or,

Negative statement + comma + auxiliary + pronoun + ?

She doesn't like pizza, does she?
Mary isn't ill, is she?
They're not going on holiday today, are they?

Note that the auxiliary in the question tag (the part underlined) is the same auxiliary we would use in the question form:

Does she? - Does she like pizza?
Is she? - Is she ill?       top arrow

Question-tags and pronoun use.

The pronouns we can use in questions tags are limited to: subject personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, we, they); it and there. The pronouns refer to the subject of the sentence. Only pronouns can be used in question-tags:

I've got your address, haven't I?
You went to Madrid yesterday, didn't you?
John's away next weekend, isn't he? (not, isn't John?)
Mary won't like that, will she? (not, will Mary?)
We can't go that way, can we?
Some people are difficult to talk to, aren't they? (not, aren't some people?)
The pencils couldn't be in the drawer, could they?

It's a cold day today, isn't it?

There aren't any seats free, are there?
There was somebody here last night, wasn't there?

Notice that other pronouns cannot be used in the question tag. This, that, these, and those will be changed to it and they:

This is ridiculous, isn't it?
That can't be true, can it?
These should be over there, shouldn't they?
Those have been washed, haven't they?

After negative words like nobody and nothing, an affirmative question tag is used. After nothing we use the pronoun it and after nobody, they:

Nothing serious will happen, will it?
There's nowhere to go, is there?
Nobody left a message, did they?

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Exceptions to the rules.

There are some subject / auxiliary combinations that are not used in question-tags. Usually, we change the auxiliary in the tag to one of a similar meaning:

I am next, aren't I? (not, amn't I?)
I may go after I finish this exercise, can't I? (y no, mayn't I?)*
It may be what you were looking for, mightn't it? (y no, mayn't it?)*

*Mayn't does exist in the Oxford English Dictionary but is rare, at least in US and UK English. The question tag structures above are possible ways a native speaker might avoid it.

See more exceptions to rules of question tags...

Question-tags with imperative sentences.

Imperative sentences use the following auxiliaries in questions tags: can, can't, will, would and won't. There is no real preference which auxiliary we use or whether it is affirmative or negative:

Go and buy me a newspaper, can you?
Be quiet, can't you?
Turn the TV off, will you?
Get me an aspirin, would you?

After a negative imperative, we can only use will you:

Don't say anything to Mary, will you?

Won't you can be used in a more formal and polite way, especially after the auxiliary "do" before the imperative:

Do take a seat, won't you?
Do help yourself to more cake, won't you?

If we offer to help using I'll or we'll or we use the structure let's, the question-tag usually takes shall:

I'll help you with that, shall I?
We'll give you a hand, shall we?
Let's go out tonight, shall we?       top arrow

Affirmative statements with affirmative questions tags.

We can use affirmative tags after statements with "so". The meaning expresses interest, surprise or even anger at what somebody is saying:

So you're new in this class, are you? How nice!
So you've lived in Madagascar, have you? How interesting!
So he's crashed the car again, has he? I told him to drive more carefully!

Intonation and question-tags (listen).

When we use a question-tag that confirms what we already suspect, voice intonation goes down on the last syllable of the question-tag. With this type of tag we do not expect a reply:

1) You have sugar in your tea, don't you? ...
2) There isn't any milk left, is there? ...
3) You went out last night, didn't you? ...
4) John hasn't seen this report yet, has he? ...

When we are not sure and we want the listener to answer if we are right or wrong, voice intonation goes up on the last syllable:

1) Listen ...
2) Listen ...
3) Listen ...
4) Listen ...

- Exercises on question-tags...

 

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