Tag questions and gender: Project


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.


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

  • Why would there be tag questions in written texts?
  • What reasons might there be for discarding the written results?

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.

  • How can we find out if this is true? In other words, do we perhaps need more information to establish that men use more tag questions than women? What information would that be?
  • What else do we need to know?

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).

I met a girl on the train today

Oh (.)

You picked up a girl on the train

I did not pick her up

I met her

SorryUh you met a girl on the train

What ’s the difference between meeting and picking up

Well she ’s not here (1)

Oh I see


I met her and

You picked her up and dropped her did you

Picked her up and dropped her yeah

Only to pick her up againI hope (.)

Oh well if you ’ve got her telephone number you picked her up

Did you get her telephone number

I got her phone number

Oh well you picked her up [?...?] it all yes (1)

You picked her up

Uhm I ’m sorry everybody thenit looks like that was a definite pick-up then (.)

What sort of a girl is she


Is she Chinese

No she ’s English

She ’s the first English girl I ’ve spoken to for about three or four years I thinkA very strange feeling

It ’s an English girlYes quite

What sort of English girl

Very very frightening [?...?] saying

but she


Oh absolutely and you know so much about them


Even more frightening than knowing they can understand what you ’re saying

That ’s what I said

Oh I see I thought you said it was very frightening being able to understand what they were saying

Yes they know too much about


Uhm (.)

Yes the English are branded on their tongue as they say don’t they so uh as soon as you speak you know they usually know what an idiot you are

So this one was (.) lower middle-class in that case

In Chinese I know even more

But what about A one B two (1) as grouping uhmI ’d say she was probably a B two (.) or maybe a B one

UhmPity (.)

She ’s a student at Saint Martin ’s I think

Is she

Uhm (1)

B one means she ’s pretty sort ofAre you talking about appearance now


How would you go about uh her

On appearance

This is class evidently

Class class

Uh start with class

three-or-four-wordsYes right

That ’s right isn’t it

Yes yes so that ’s it

Yes yes that ’s right

We were estimating her income

I mean if she ’s a student at Saint Martin ’s she would presumably be covered

No no but I ’m saying if she hadMichael ’s so [?...?] [?...?] accent and so on


It ’s what she earns

Her parents get


Yes oneuh and appearance

Appearances don’t go A one and A twoIt goes on a scale from one to ten (laugh)


Where was she

And she is four and a half five (1)That ’s pretty good

I ’ve heard that ’s very good and uh uh

it ’s very hard

Not bad

Uh uh uh what do you mean below half way down the ratings

Yeah just (.)

There ’s a very severe judge this

I should imagine he is yes yes

Nobody here is above eight

Being one of the beautiful people himself he uh has these high standards (1)Anybody that ’s got an eye each side of their nose and can walk around to me is a tremendous beauty he says (1)


that ’s

Anyway anyway anyway Louis tell us more about her

I don’t know much about herI ’ve got her phone number right hereThe thing is what ’s the etiquette of this

You ’re then meant to wait a couple of days before you ring them up or else it appears uncool you know


Ring her tomorrow and invite her out

Just say I happen to be going to the theatre and I have two tickets

Credit line

Is that all I say


Well there ’s

Don’t ask me what you sayYou ’re the expert at this

there ’s the strike while the iron is hot policy (.)And there is the other policy adopted by a friend of mine who always lets thirteen days pass

Thirteen days he calculated would as it were just allow such expectations like boredom with it uhm melt into a vague disappointment (1)So [?...?] however attractive she was he counted off thirteen days and then rang her




I would be afraid that in three days she ’d have forgotten all about me let alone thirteen (.)

Ah you seethe danger is uhm he ’s not like Louis of course and more like me a sort of person that would find it hard to uh be attractiveso if (1) he always felt that he ’d

This good-spirited

Person ’d be intrigued by the thirteen day gapShe ’d be so confident she ’d got him

that he ’d ring

she would hesitate whether to [?] him



But that sounds as uh he was slightly blasé[?] [?] (.)

Do you want to appear blasé

I don’t know (.)

Ring her tomorrow

Can you appear blaséDo you think that someone from this particular socioeconomic group (1)

Uh don I don’t know

Or is she so used to that (1) that the sort of direct D three approach might be more effective you know so (.)

She ’s sitting there at this very moment saying why doesn’t he ring me at this moment (.)

Yes of course

If you rang her now she ’d say yes LouisI bet you ten quid on itI mean it

I hope she doesn’t work at this institute (1) or this institute

There ’s the plot of a novel there (.)

Not quite

There is a novel

Or a short story

There is a short story

A crime novelIt ’d be a murder story (1)

I think there ’s a Barbara Cartland romance actually (1)Four and a half he called me she quavered (1)Surely it couldn’t have been him from lake thirty-five (1)

Yes (1)

Can I set it in Regency times (.)I ’d have the equivalent of a stage coach or something (1)

Don’t think their picking up was quite the same was it (.)

I mean it

What do they doI don’t know I mean

Well I mean say eighteenth century relationships between men and women were very different because if it was a low class womanand we have a precedent from Boswell ’s London Journal (.) where he comes out of Saint Paul ’s Cathedral after being elevated by a very fine sermon and determined to better his life but unfortunately meets a trollop at the bridge (.) and then goes home regretting that he had not brought a sheath with him and fearing they were going to be

Uhm (laughter)if I remember Boswell ’s London Journal he almost invariably does

Yes he ’s endlessly getting

Has thirty days on mercury curesthree-or-four-words very painful for

That ’s rightStraight after the Dean ’s sermon as well

Yes uhm (.)God it must ’ve been awful in those days

Well yeah (1)How would you arrange these things without a telephoneI was wondering that (1)

What did they do

I think people moved in a much smaller circle then in those days thoughI don’t know what they did

UhmWell they dropped cards in I suppose the doorsOr was that nineteenth century

Wonder what people do now

I think that ’s more nineteenth century

Uhm (1)

How did men arrange to be with women whether they were unmarried or married (.)Below them I mean

Who knows

Cos they did didn’t theythere was certain intimacy in the eighteenth centuryPeople were in

Johnson certainly uh sat with Mrs Thrale a long time and whatever in intimate conversations (1)


It was more like now than the nineteenth century was


Uhm I think the nineteenth

Well it depends very much again what class you were in and (1)

TheAnd where you were

It would be the equivalent of talking to a girl on the stage between Dover and London (1)

But I don’t (.)It ’s difficult to imagine people (1) picking women up and

I think yeah (.)You get a bit [?...?] these daysOh I know where we wereDickensNow Dickens setting his uh Tale of Two Cities has the meeting of the I forget the name of the girl or the manindeed so uh probably boring both of them uhm charactersUh the Frenchman who marries the doctor ’s daughter

I know yes yes

Now they meet on the packet sailing from England don’t theyAnd all Dickens says that he called on the doctorAnd I think that was the etiquette

You called on the man (.) and as it were exchange as many words as you could on the way to the study door (1)And Othello of course calls on uh Desdemona ’s father doesn’t he and then he tells her the story of his life

Yes so you must call on her father quite obviously and uhm (1)

Yes right


I think I ’ve got this together eventually

Oh goody (1)

I hope this is good (.)It comes from Marks and Spencer ’s (.)

Bound to be (1)

Yes oh that ’s niceDoes she play tennis

I don’t know (.)Haven’t gone into that yet


You ’ll be lucky if she doesn’t (1)

Yeah I was on the way to see my grandmother (1)Cheery afternoon in the old people ’s home (1)

Coming back from work was sheOh no she ’s a student

She ’s a student

Oh that ’s good (1)Is it Martin ’sIs it School of Art

That ’s right yeah


Oh that sounds jolly good (1)Suitable isn’t itartist and writer (.) poverty stricken (1)

One tearing up canvasesthe other stamping on (1)Both weeping uncontrollably (1)

Do you think that an artist should uhm live with another artist


Or can an artist only live with another artist (1)

I don’t know

Robin what do you think

Uh what about

candoes an artist have to live with an artist (.)

Does an artist have to live with an artist

YesWhat happens

I don’t see why

Uh do they have to or can they

well uh Browning uhm and Emily you see lived together


Browning and uh

Uh not Emily uhm (.)Elizabeth (.)



Uhm (1)

Turner lived very happily with (.)I don’t know

I think artists have sort of great (.) understanding of women[?...?] (1)

Bank managers

Right I ’m going to dish this up now (1)

No I think I would certainly want to live with someone that could understand one ’s own angst and anxieties

Uhm (1)

Some bright breezy soul would be a nightmare in (1)

Yeah maybe (.)I think I don’t want to live with anybody at the moment actually (.)

You don’t want to live with them

You ’re not a neurotic wreck on the other hand uhm

No no (1)

Anyway it ’s nice to have met her

Uhm (1)So how ’s it going with this rewrite (1)

Uh well I don’t know about calling it anything like that uh (1)I ’m not utterly at the bottom of the road uhm (.) coconut (1)I can only see the book being about a thousand pages longthat ’s the trouble

So complex

Will anyone congratulate me on my cooking

Oh look at that

Wow marvellous

Uh this comes entirely from Marks and Spencer ’s

Doesn’t it look delicious though

And all I had to do was heat it up

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:

  • speaker A: 1
  • speaker B: 6
  • speaker C: 0

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

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