Tag questions and gender

Goals

The conversational styles of men and women are a key area of study in the two major English Language A-level specifications. Students are encouraged to analyse examples of conversation, informed by their study of some of the major research into deficit, dominance, difference and social constructionist models. The most able students are often capable of discussing conversational interaction with some insight, and seem prepared to challenge assumptions about how men supposedly interrupt more, women use more tentative forms, or how women are systematically dominated in conversation. However, less able students often cling to lists of features or broad-brush recall of research (Zimmerman and West, usually), and rarely deal with problematic examples of real interaction which seem to go against the theory.

This resource is an attempt to encourage students to consider the links between grammatical form and function: what something is and what it does. The aim is to show that while certain grammatical forms can be easily counted and identified in transcripts, the functions often depend very much on who is using them, where they are being used and what has gone before. Moving on from this, we hope to encourage students to test different hypotheses against data available in language corpora, and to help them develop research questions by thinking through various ideas about methodology.

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Tag questions and gender: Project

Introduction

The following is an outline of a number of questions that could be asked while putting together an investigation into tag questions.

Read the extract by Robin Lakoff in Language and gender: an advanced resource book (J.Sunderland, Routledge, 2006) which is reproduced in the handout at the bottom of this page.

In this extract, Lakoff makes a number of points about how men and women use tag questions. There seems little dispute about the grammatical form of a tag question - an interrogative tagged onto the end of a declarative – but what is more open to interpretation is the meaning and use of this feature.

Project

To begin with, we can use data from a corpus, i.e. a large database of authetic spoken and written text materials. One such corpus is the British Component of the International Corpus of English (ICE-GB; for more information, click here). We can use software to find tag questions in ICE-GB and then ask the question 'Do women use more tag questions than men'?

Step 1: A search for TAGQ (tag question) in the British Component of the International Corpus of English yields:

Total hits: 757

Spoken: 722

Written: 35

Tag questions in written texts are likely to occur in passages of dialogue in fiction. Fictional dialogue can often represent stereotypes of male and female speech – even naturalistic dialogue can be quite inaccurate.

Step 2: Discarding written examples and narrowing the search criteria down by looking for examples uttered by females and males, we get:

Spoken tag questions uttered by females = 296 (41%)

Spoken tag questions uttered by males = 426 (59%)

So, according to these numbers, men use more tag questions than women in ICE-GB.

We would need to know how many utterances were spoken by men and women in the entire corpus. We’d need to know the relative proportion of tag questions to utterances where a tag question might have been used. We’d also need to think about subclasses of spoken data, for example if particular types of conversation encourage more tag question use (classroom talk, etc).

Step 3: Narrowing down the variables. Can we search for different examples uttered by men and women taking their level of education into account? If we do so, the results are as follows:

Number of tag questions uttered by females with secondary education = 85

Number of tag questions uttered by females with university education = 170

What about the missing 41? Perhaps they are mixed conversations.

Step 4: Zoom in to one extract to find out more detail.

An interesting example might be S1A-009:

2 speakers: 1 male, 1 female.

Male uses no tags; female uses 10.

What does this tell us about male/female conversation styles?

Can we generalise from this?

Examples of those 10 tag questions are here (click on the '+'-symbol to enlarge):

Extension project

Read text S1A-020 from ICE-GB, shown below (click on the '+'-symbol to enlarge).

Here we’ve got a 4 way conversation (3 male, 1 female).

The female uses 1 tag, and the three males combined use 7.

Break this down further and we have:

Are there any differences between the tag questions used in this transcript?

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