Tag questions

Questions like ...isn’t it?, ...haven’t they? and ...wouldn’t you? that sit on the end of a statement are called tag questions in linguistics. There’s a range of different tag questions most people call on, varying by verb, tense, person and whether the tag is positive or negative.

Tag questions are useful in languages not just because they allow speakers to ask questions, but also because they allow speakers in real conversations to show that they are listening to each other, and to build solidarity, understanding, and agreement between speakers. These types of uses of language relate to pragmatics - the study of what we can do with language in real settings.

Tag questions are also useful for grammatical analysis. The Subject of a tag question must refer back to the Subject of the full sentence. Consider the following examples:

  • We had a big chat about this before, didn't we?
  • You can't blame her for that, really, can you?
  • That's a bit of a tall order, isn't it?

In the first example, the Subject of the tag question is we. That refers back to the Subject of the full sentence, we. In the second example, the Subject of the tag question is you, which refers back to the Subject of the full sentence, you. And finally, in the third example, the Subject of the tag question is it, which refers back to the Subject of the full sentence, that. Now consider the following example:

  • David was a good speaker, wasn't he?

One reliable way to identify the Subject of the sentence is to look at the tag question. To what or whom does he refer? He refers to David, and David is the subject of the sentence.

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