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Tag Questions in ESL Lessons
Types of Questions
As ESL students advance in their English language skills, their understanding of how to ask questions becomes more important. A question is a special type of sentence that is usually spoken to another person; unless it is a rhetorical question, it asks for a response that is probably either a fact, an agreement, a disagreement or an opinion.
There are two basic types of questions that may be formed: Open and Closed.
- Open Questions: These are questions that use a question word, such as how, what, where, when, why. They leave the response open and cannot be correctly answered with yes, or no.
- Closed Questions: There are different types of closed questions, but they do not allow a wide range of responses. Closed questions may be asked using the following:
- An Operator: The sentence is commenced with what has been termed an operator, such as are: Are you coming?, can: Can you see this?
- Intonation: By raising the voice at the end of a sentence, such as: She isn't ill?
- A Tag Question: A statement is followed by a tag, such as isn't it? e.g. This is your book, isn't it?
Tags That Give Additional Information
In informal, conversational English, speakers often add a tag to the end of a sentence as a means of providing extra information, e.g. She's always so faithful and forgiving, my little dog.
Again, in informal, conversational English, speakers often add a tag to the end of a sentence to change that sentence or statement into a question.
- Formation of a Tag Question: A tag question is usually formed by adding an auxiliary verb and a subject to the end of a sentence, e.g. didn't he? were they? An auxiliary is a 'helping verb,' such as be, do and have. Auxiliary verbs are used in the formation of tenses, moods and voices of other verbs.
- Use of a Tag Question: A tag question is often used to elicit a response, to assist a conversation to continue, or for hedging. If it is used for hedging, modality may be involved.
- Modality: This relates to the mood of a verb and modality is often used in hedging. In grammar, the mood of a verb is the form or category of the verb that is used and a modal verb is an auxiliary that can help to express possibility. A modal is a word such as would, shall, will, might, must, ought. Hedging and the use of modals helps to soften a statement, so it can be a way of saying something more politely, rather than just a bare statement. A tag question may be used as a hedge with or without a modal verb.
Tag questions are either positive or negative.
- Positive Tag Questions: A positive tag question usually follows a negative sentence, e.g. You aren't going out in this rain, are you? They haven't had dinner yet, have they? An example of a positive tag question that hedges by using a modal is: You wouldn't mind putting this in the bin, would you?
- Negative Tag Questions: A negative tag question usually follows a positive sentence: e.g. He's gone home, hasn't he? It's one o'clock, isn't it? An example of a negative tag question that hedges by using a modal is: He must leave on time, mustn't he?
- The tag of a tag question usually repeats the auxiliary verb, but uses its opposite meaning, for example, a negative statement that uses isn't changes to a tag that uses the positive form of the auxiliary: is; a positive statement that uses must changes to a tag that uses the negative form of the auxiliary: mustn't.
- Watch out for irregular verbs, such as the auxiliary of the verb to be, where am becomes aren't, as in I'm covered in mud, aren't I? Another anomaly is where the auxiliary verb is 'understood'; it is not actually used in the statement, but appears in the tag, as in He feels cold, doesn't he?
Tag Questions in Other Languages: It can be fun when teaching ESL to ask the students to translate into English the use of tag questions -and other types of questions - in the languages that they speak. They may discover that the tags are the same as in English, or they may find them different, but it is an interesting exercise for the students. Even in English we have different ways of adding a tag in different countries and places, for example, Australians from other states can usually tell a Queenslander quite quickly by their use of eh tagged to the end of a sentence, such as: Nice day, eh? Mandarin speakers do something similar by adding ma to the end of a statement.
Question Use and Sex Differences: It has been proposed that women ask tag questions more than men, so that tag questions can often be seen as gender markers, and that as women's language is usually more polite they use tag questions as hedges. It has also been said that women use more modals than men for the same reason and that women use both open and closed questions more than men as they work harder to open a conversation or to maintain one. Various researchers have questioned these differences, but as language is a living entity and changes over time, the way it could be used differently by men and women may also change. What do you think?
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