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Tag Questions in ESL Lessons

Updated on January 23, 2013
BlossomSB profile image

Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

We can be friends, can't we?
We can be friends, can't we? | Source

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Tag Questions

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?

Interesting Issues

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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    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      nifwlseirff: No, Victorians don't do that - so far as I know. Yes, changing to work in a different culture can be tricky. I hope you're enjoying Germany. There's such a lot to see in your time off, isn't there?

    • nifwlseirff profile image

      Kymberly Fergusson 5 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

      I didn't realise the -eh was a Queenslander trait. Is there any particular Victorian equivalent?

      In Japan, ne is often used, and in this particular area in Germany, na works in the same way. I have to be careful when teaching English, because I often tag with 'ne' after living in Japan!

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 5 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      lauramaryscott: It's not easy to learn another language, especially as one grows older, but if you like to travel it's polite to try to speak the local language as much as possible and even if we make mistakes the people usually appreciate that at least we've tried.

      To reply to your second comment: Thank you for the suggestion. I checked it out and left a comment. It was interesting to read and I'm sure that tags must be used in most languages.

      teaches12345: Thank you for your vote and affirming comments. I hope that it is helpful to other people.

      Jackie Lynnley: We all need to brush up on our English every now and then, especially the grammar. It seems to be a sad fact that we don't always know so much of our own grammar and only learn about it when we learn another language. Re the men v women: It's really interesting, isn't it?

      shara63: Aren't you lovely to make such comments! Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    • lauramaryscott profile image

      lauramaryscott 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      BlossumBS, check out this Hub. After reading your article and learning about the "eh" I read movielardatadare's article about his Betta fish. He used "eh" tags. I never paid attention to tags before but I knew relatives from Canada used them. I thought you might enjoy reading his article wherein he uses tags.

    • shara63 profile image

      Farhat 5 years ago from Delhi

      BlossonSB, selection of topic in your hubs is commendable, and your simple - soft way of teaching, executes the job really well... i enjoyed this one too, thank you so much !

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      A great English lesson and it has been awhile! A new twist too and I can buy the proposal that women ask more tag questions than men. Indeed!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      I believe this post is helpful to any person. I found it a good refresher course. You certainly are gifted in this educational form of communication and teaching. Voted way up.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

      blossoms ur ESL hubs are indeed very useful :) thank you

    • lauramaryscott profile image

      lauramaryscott 5 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      BlossumSB, your article was interesting. I have tried twice to learn how to speak a foreign language. I think some people have a gift for it; not me. Your hub addressed things I had never heard of before. Thanks.