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Question Tags - A Simple Approach for ESL Teachers
In spoken English a question tag changes a statement into a question and helps to confirm and reassure what is being inferred. They can also keep a conversation flowing and tend to elicit a positive response.
The tag part in the sentence below is shown in bold type
Questions tags are easy to learn, aren't they?
Yes, they are. Your students will quickly catch on to the basic rules and the dos and dont's. With regular practice they'll learn all there is to know about this part of the English language.
In British English we use question tags, in American English tag questions is used.
David is always on time, isn't he?
He hardly ever sings, does he?
It's very nice, isn't it?
He should help with the work, shouldn't he?
Rules for Question Tags
1. When the statement is affirmative, the tag is negative.
2. When the statement is negative, the tag is affirmative.
3. Pronouns are used for the tag.
4. The verb tense always stays the same.
When the verb is present simple, tag is do/does.
When the verb is past simple, tag is did.
The question tag is added to help bring agreement between the speaker and listener. That makes sense, doesn't it? If the statement becomes a question there's a natural need for an answer.
It's as if the speaker is uncertain and wants to be told that they are indeed correct in their suggestion.
Some CORRECT examples
There are lots of people in the room, aren't there?
There's still one hour left, isn't there?
It must fit, mustn't it?
It depends on the person, doesn't it?
You're not really that concerned, are you?
You are happy, aren't you?
He should work harder, shouldn't he?
She started it, didn't she?
They play cricket on Saturdays, don't they?
They lied, didn't they?
In spoken English question tags are fairly common and you'll hear them all the time in normal conversation.
Your students may find them a bit puzzling at first but once they get used to tags they'll want to use them as often as possible - just like the native speakers do!
You won't find as many tags in other languages. In fact in french there's only one n'est-ce pas? And the Germans use nicht wahr?
Russians tend to use da?, yes? and Spanish and Italians use no? no? Scots might use eh?
Some students learning English can fall into bad habits. They start to use inappropriate tags, such as in this example:
We should get out of bed before 6am, isn't it?
So this is all your own work, innit?
The latter is commonly heard in London English.
You should gently use error correction if you come across examples like this!
Some INCORRECT examples
This is your car, hasn't it?
We should set the alarm clock for 6am, isn't it?
You are my friend, won't you?
The young puppies were excited, aren't they?
We shall stay behind and help, shouldn't we?
Intonation - More Examples
Question tags can really keep a conversation flowing because they stimulate the listener's response.
a) John has eaten well, hasn't he? Yes, he had several portions of fresh pasta.
b) It's fantastic, isn't it? Truly wonderful, I agree.
Often the speaker's intonation rises or falls at the end of a question tag, depending on the meaning.
- If there is uncertainty usually the voice rises, wanting reassurance.(a)
- If there is certainty the voice usually falls.(b)
In this sentence:
You are excited, aren't you?
are= auxiliary verb
excited= main verb
aren't= auxiliary with shortened not
He doesn't speak French very well, does he?
doesn't= auxiliary with shortened not
speak= main verb
very well = adverb
Question tag Variants
Some question tags differ from the norm.
Do listen, will you?
Oh, you did, did you?
Here we have the imperative do, and the ironic response to someone who has perhaps done something naughty or inappropriate!
Sometimes a tag can be rhetorical:
I tried to contact you this evening, but you didn't answer.
I was busy in the workshop, wasn't I?
More CORRECT examples
Jennifer is a detective, isn't she?
It didn't cause any bother, did it?
They will attend the meeting, won't they?
Maria can play the lead role, can't she?
Let's drink on it, shall we?
Sit down, won't you?
You do like tea, don't you?
Question tags are relatively easy to learn and are best practiced in small group conversation. You can follow up with some written questions and some clear examples.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey