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Unit 57: Question Tags

Question Tags

Question tags are small questions "tagged" on to the end of a sentence to make a question. For example:
Sentence:- She speaks English.
Question:- Does she speak English?
Question Tag:- She speaks English, doesn't she?

Form

Question tags are made from an auxiliary verb and the subject.
If the sentence is affirmative, we usually use a negative tag, for eaxmple:
- That's a great song, isn't it?
- She's a lawyer, isn't she?

If the sentence is negative, the tag is positive. For example:
- You're not busy, are you?
- This way isn't right, is it?

The auxiliary verb and subject in the question tag match those in the main sentence. Only the positive and negative past changes. For example:
- He can play the trumpet, can't he?
- You haven't finished yet, have you?
Here the subject is in blue, and the auxiliary verb in green. It's just whether each part of the question is positive or negative that changes.

Function

Question tags have two main purposes: to confirm expected information and to question unexpected information. You can tell which function is being used by the voice - when the voice goes down it's checking expected information - when the voice goes up it's really asking a question. For example:

- Intonation going down - You haven't finished yet, have you?
I expect you haven't finished, I'm just checking.
- Intonation going up - You haven't finished yet, have you?
I'm really asking if you're finished or not. If you are finished it's earlier than I expected, so I'm surprised.

- You're really busy now, aren't you? - Yes, I've got to finish this by Monday.
I'm confirming you're busy now, possibly showing sympathy as well.
- Why are you watching TV? You're really busy now, aren't you? - Not really, I did most of it last night.
I think you're busy but I'm surprised, you should be working not watching TV, so I'm asking about an unexpected situation.

Negative sentences with positive tags are often used for requests, for example:
- You don't have a pencil, do you?
- You couldn't change a $5 bill, could you?

Imperative questions tags usually use will, for example:
- Open the door for me, wil you?
- Hang on a minute, will you?
Unless used with informal language, question tags with imperatives can often sound impatient.

Question tags are an important part of natural speech and are particularly useful in small talk, as they help to confirm and affirm key information in a sympathetic way.

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