Tag Questions

We touched on—briefly talked or wrote about—tag questions in our article about answering questions in English. But there’s a lot more to learn about this special type of question. 

In this article, we’re going in depth on tag questions. We’ll learn their basic structure, how to use them in positive and negative contexts, how to answer them, and some special use cases.

 

Structure of a Tag Question

Tag questions have a specific construction in English: statement + short question. They’re used to ask for confirmation about something and commonly used in everyday conversation. If you want to confirm if something is correct or if someone agrees or disagrees with a statement, you can ask a tag question.

Statement Tag Question
He’s very tall, isn’t he?

 

Statement Tag Question
You’re not going to go, are you?

 

When you make a tag question, repeat the auxiliary or ‘be verb’ from the statement and then change the positive or negative form to the opposite—meaning a positive statement changes to a negative tag question and a negative statement changes to a positive tag question.

Tag Questions with a Positive Statement

Let’s take a closer look at tag questions asked with a positive statement. The form has two parts: Positive Statement + Negative Tag

 

Positive Statement:

Subject + Auxiliary or ‘be verb’ + Main Verb

They + are + going,

 

Negative Tag:

Auxiliary + Not + Personal Pronoun (repeat the subject)

Aren’t (are not) + they?

So, the full tag question is: They are going, aren’t they?

 

Here are some more examples:

  • We’re going, aren’t we?
  • You’ve finished, haven’t you?
  • She’ll help, won’t she?
  • You’ll go, won’t you?
  • He can come, can’t he?

‘Do’ in Present and Past Simple with a Positive Statement

The word ‘do’ or ‘did’ is optional with a positive statement, so it may not appear as the auxiliary verb sometimes. However, it’s necessary to place it in the tag question as in:

  • They need it, don’t they?
  • He likes it, doesn’t he?
  • I wanted it, didn’t I?
  • She liked it, didn’t she?

‘Be’ verb in present simple and past simple.

When using a ‘be’ verb in the present and past simple with a tag question, there is no auxiliary verb. The ‘be’ verb acts as the main verb as in:

  • I was there, wasn’t I?
  • He was mad, wasn’t he?
  • You are bored, aren’t you?

Tag Questions with a Negative Statement

Let’s look at tag questions asked with a negative statement. The form has two parts: Negative Statement + Positive Tag

 

Negative Statement:

Subject + Auxiliary or ‘be verb’ in negative form + Main Verb

They + aren’t (are not) + going,

 

Negative Tag:

Auxiliary + Personal Pronoun (repeat the subject)

are + they?

 

So, the full tag question is: They are going, aren’t they?

Here are some more examples:

  • We aren’t going, are we?
  • You haven’t finished, have you?
  • She won’t help, will she?
  • You won’t go, will you?
  • He can’t come, can he

Remember that the contracted form of will not is won’t.

How to Answer a Tag Question

Answering a tag question is often as simple as yes or no. However, sometimes speakers will repeat the tag question and reverse it to answer. This is different in many other languages and can sometimes lead to confusion for non-native English speakers. 

Just remember to answer a tag question based on the facts or truth or reality. Your answer is what will reflect those facts or the truth. People often stress their answer as a way to confirm it.

To understand better, let’s look at some tag questions regarding the color of the daytime sky, which everyone knows is blue.

 

Question: The sky is blue, isn’t it?
Answer: Yes (it is)

 

Question: The sky isn’t blue, is it?
Answer: Yes it is!

 

The bold words in that sentence are stressed to show that the person answering doesn’t agree with the person who asked the question.

Question: The sky is yellow, isn’t it?
Answer: No it isn’t!

 

Again, the bold words are the stress in the response to disagree with the question.

 

Question: The sky is yellow, isn’t it?
Answer: No (it isn’t)

 

As we stated, in some languages, the correct answer to a question like “The sky isn’t yellow, is it” would be “Yes”—which is a way to show that you agree with the statement. However, in English, this is incorrect

Here are some more examples of tag questions with the correct response in English:

  • The Earth orbits the Sun, doesn’t it? Yes it does.
  • Ants are smaller than humans, aren’t they? Yes
  • Saturn is bigger than Jupiter, isn’t it? No, it isn’t!
  • Hockey isn’t a very popular sport in Canada, is it? Yes, it is!
  • Penguins live in the Sahara Desert, don’t they? No, they don’t!
  • Humans don’t have a tail, do they? No.
  • Binary code doesn’t have 20 numbers does it? No, it doesn’t.

Special Tag Questions

Adverbs that are negative

There are certain adverbs that are inherentlyessential part of or characteristic of—negative like: scarcely, barely, hardly, seldomly or seldom, rare or rarely, and never

These negative adverbs of frequency may be used in a grammatically positive statement, but the negative adverb creates a negative feeling. Therefore, the statement becomes negative and the tag is positive. That may seem a little confusing to read, so let’s look at some examples:

  • She never went there, did she?
  • He rarely goes out anymore, does he?
  • She was hardly ever on time, was she?
  • They barely had time to breath, did they?

Tone

The tone or intonation of a tag question can change its meaning as to whether the questioner is asking a legitimate question or a rhetorical question—asked for effect with no answer expected.

 

When the intonation rises, it conveys a real question. But when the intonation falls, the question sounds more like a general statement and should be treated as rhetorical.

Here are two examples:

Rising intonation: You don’t know where I left my keys, do you? – Real Question

Falling intonation: The mountains are majestic, aren’t they? -Rhetorical Question

 

Asking for Help or Information

English speakers use tag questions a lot as a polite way of asking for information or help. These questions begin with a negative statement. So for example, here would be a question structure based on politeness:

  • Where are my keys? (not polite)
  • Do you know where my keys are? (a little more polite)
  • You haven’t seen my keys, have you? (polite)

Here are some other examples:

  • You couldn’t tell her for me, could you?
  • You don’t know of any cars for sale around here, do you?
  • You haven’t got any change do spare, do you?

Other Special Cases

Finally, there are some other tag questions that are truly unique and don’t really follow the guidelines:

  • I am here, aren’t I?

There is no contracted negative of the verb am, so we use are instead. You could also end with the tag question: am I not?

  • We have to leave, don’t we?

This means you (do) have to leave. 

  • Nothing was there, was it?

Words like nothing or nobody convey negative statements.

  • Let’s run, shall we?

Let’s is the contracted form of let us

Conclusion

With these examples, you can hopefully start to grasp the usage of tag questions in English. 

If you want to practice using tag questions and other special English speaking forms, try SpeakUp by Magoosh! With our platform, you can get a lot of speaking time with other English learners and receive feedback from native English speakers to make sure you’re learning things correctly.

And if you’re looking to learn new words, phrases, and proper pronunciation, visit the Magoosh English Speaking YouTube page. We’re uploading new content every week to help you master the most difficult English concepts and learn new phrases. 

 

Jake Pool

Jake Pool

After working in the restaurant industry for over a decade, Jake left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. He now creates content that informs, inspires, and educates ESL students on a wide range of topics. Jake also records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension.
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