Tag Questions

Tag questions are concerned more with establishing interpersonal relations and suggesting whether some kind of response is required (or to close off any response), rather than requesting any specific information.

Andersen (Andersen, Gisle. “Are tag questions questions? Evidence from spoken data.” 19th ICAME Conference. Belfast. 1998.) identified eight main functions of tag question which differ mainly according to the intonation, pitch and stress patterns:

1. Confirming info (=I think so) – High falling tone; response required:

You ordered fish, didn’t you?       

2. Checking info (=Is it so?) – High rising; response required:

You like dogs, don’t you?  

3. Chatting (=Let’s chat) – Mid slight rising; response required:

Nice day, isn’t it?

4. Challenging (=You’re wrong!) – Low falling-rising; response required:

I told you so, didn’t I?   

5. Closing (=I don’t want to talk) – Low rising-falling; no response required:

Well, I forgot, didn’t I

6. Antagonizing (=I don’t like you!) – Low falling; no response required:

I’m not stupid, am I.  

7. Aggravating (=Do it!) – Low rising; no response required:

Just stop it, will you

8. Softening (=Let’s not argue) – Mid slight rising; response required:

Please don’t forget, will you

Personally though, I would also add two more in keeping with the full range of intonation patterns. So as well as 4. and 5. above, a high rising-falling and high falling-rising would also be possible:

10. Questioning (=I’m surprised) – High falling-rising; optional response:

That isn’t a cat, is it?

9. Acknowledging (=I’m grateful) – High rising-falling; optional response:

Oh, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?

The difference in function is also often recognisable through extra-linguistic factors, depending more on tone of voice, body language and the situation or context of the conversation. The same sentence may thus have different interpersonal functions depending on these factors.

If a response is required, there are a number of possible options:

1. Minimal responses: yeah, yes, mm, right etc

A: you have to get back by train won’t you, obviously.

B: yeah

2. Repetition of entire proposition

A: You’re not open on Saturday are you?

B: We’re closed Saturday.

 3. Elliptical repetition of proposition

A: She wouldn’t do that would she?

B: She would.

 4. Repetition of propositional element

A: You’re almost fluent in English aren’t you?

B: Almost.

 5. (Near-) synonymous expression

A: But that’s really quite quite bad, isn’t it?

B: Dreadful, poor parents.

 6. Implicature

A: Her father’s got money hasn’t he?

B: They’ve all got money.

(Implicature: yes, confirmation)

A: Never phone her do you?

B: Can’t be bothered.

(Implicature: no, confirmation)

A: You missed a lot did you?

B: Only the first lesson, which is …

(Implicature: no, rejection)

 7. Responses expressing reduced commitment/uncertainty

A: But you never used to hang around with her though, did you?

B: Well, sort of.

(Adapted from: Andersen, G. 1998. ‘Are tag questions questions? Evidence from spoken data’)


It is also possible to replace the question tag with an invariant one such as ‘OK?’, ‘right?’, ‘yeah?’, ‘correct?’, or ‘eh?’ among others. These can be dialectical or regional. There are some differences between them.

  • ‘Right’ often functions to check information and ask ‘Is this correct?’:

AD9 2214 ‘You’re the kid with Leila, right?’

ALJ 555 The compartment under the passenger seat in the front, right?

BN1 2508 So that last option is favourite, right?

G0N 2730 She’s your niece, right?’

G1W 2061 ‘It might just be possible though, right?’

G5E 28 I paid forty pound ninety five, right?

GV6 1922 ‘And they were married in Ireland, at Rathdrum in County Wicklow, right?’

H5K 80 You took it out the other night, right?

  • ‘OK’ often functions to close debate. It is often used with imperatives:

A0F 1101 ‘If this bounces, you’re out on your ear, OK?’

A0F 2901 Listen, you sit down, I’ll get a couple of coffees and we’ll have a chat, OK?’

C8E 3057 We all love you here, OK?’

C8T 346 Look, if I knew who he was I might know where he was, OK?’

CCW 70 Count me out, OK?

F9X 2691 I said I’ll do it, OK?

F9X 4049 ‘Look, I know what I’m doing, OK?’

FP7 342 ‘Let’s go, OK?

  • ‘Yeah?’ functions mainly to facilitate conversation, overtly indicating a response is required:

A0F 1560 ‘You were reckoning on trying your luck abroad, yeah?’

C8E 2182 ‘You liked it, yeah?’

ECT 2319 Maybe I’ll have one more shot at it, yeah?

FM7 728 Well done, that’s a good word, when we use our little circle of words you can use that word, yeah?

FM8 20 He was white slim and quite tall, yeah?

KB7 11755 Alright, yeah?

KBW 9719 You’re gonna have beans instead of tomatoes, yeah?

KCP 6739 Pat’s gone to theatre has she, yeah?

KPW 827 You’ve read this book called Roll Of Thunder, yeah?

(All examples from British National Corpus)


Matching Pairs exercises

A student the other day had difficulty with a textbook matching exercise. The prompt was:

Are you watching the TV?

The required option was:

You can turn it off.

I think the difficulty here was due to the incongruence of the lexico-grammar (present-in present material Process) with the Interpersonal semantics (a request to turn off the TV rather than a request for information). The exercise was ostensibly practising the present progressive but the student was confused as the expected response (‘Yes, I am watching the TV) did not appear.

I must admit I’m not a big fan of these exercises. I can see why materials writers like them, they seem fairly straightforward, but they tend to assume that all forms of that tense are the same (‘Let’s practise the Present Progressive!’) and don’t take account of grammatical metaphor like the one above. Also there is an implicit assumption that practicing these will lead to native-like acquisition of the form but, personally, I feel that the opposite is the case – that native-speaker competence allows the interpretation of the form.

Recently then I’ve been taking a different approach by giving the students the completed matching pair dialogues and discussing which are congruent and which are not. For those inconguent, we try to guess what the grammatical metaphor is (this is related to Speech Act theory in traditional sociolinguistics).


Here’s a XKCD strip:


It’s often said that you can’t ‘teach conversation’ yet I think this is only partly true. Of course it’s not possible to teach how to have a conversation, that comes naturally and unfolds as the situation and participants interact, but it’s also the case that quite a lot of ‘conversation’ is a socially-enacted activity with certain expectations of which learners must become aware.

For more see: McCarthy, M., 1991, Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, CUP



Metaphors of time and grammar

One of the most common EFL grammar lessons, especially at Beginner or Pre-Intermediate levels, is the ‘Present Continuous to Talk About Future Plans’ lesson. While this is an important usage for the present-in present and should be introduced at some stage, the problem I’ve always had with these kinds of lessons is that it doesn’t explain why we might choose that tense in that situation. Recently however, I’ve been trying to introduce the notion of grammatical metaphor in relation to time and tense choice: the dichotomy between real-world time and grammatical time. Let’s call then R-T and G-T.

If R-T and G-T match, then we are presenting some fact about the world directly. For example, I go hiking on weekends, where R-T and G-T both construe a primary present, expresses a true condition about my habitual action while I’m going hiking on weekends these days, where the G-T shifts to a secondary present-in present, expresses some change that has occurred (hence the Circumstance these days – we want to know when the change started). Often, when R-T and G-T match it can be too pragmatically direct. Compare, for example, Do you want a drink? (R-T = G-T) with Did you want a drink? (R-T ≠ G-T).

When talking about the future this grammatical metaphor also comes into play. Imagine explaining there is a meeting tomorrow (there is/tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T construing the meeting as a hypothetical event). We may wish to construe this as confirmation of a fact about the future with primary future (I’ll have a meeting tomorrow – R-T = G-T) or shift it slightly into the primary present (I have a meeting tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T) to suggest some slight hypotheticality or that it is one as usual out of a regular scheduled series. This slight difference can be used by writers to subtle effect. Here are two newspaper versions of the same story written by the same reporter. Note the shift in the last two sentences of each:

Power firm angry over new rule on shipments By Barry Turnbull A ROW has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Furious bosses of electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen got the go-ahead for the £40m Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year. But cautious councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading dust. Hazard claim Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard. But Powergen bosses have reacted angrily to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit. ” The company claims providing covered wagons would cost £12.6m, with an additional £900,000 a year running costs. Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Local councillor Eddie McEvilly said: ” I don’t really want to talk about conditions on the operation, because I don’t want to see it at all. ” Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee meet tonight to discuss the issue. The Bootle coal mountains are to be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Costs row over coal terminal By Barry Turnbull A MULTI-MILLION pound row has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen was given the go-ahead for the Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year, but councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading coal dust. Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard and a nuisance. But Powergen bosses have reacted quickly to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit which may result. ” Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee will meet tonight to discuss the issue . The dockside coal depot will be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Why does the writer do this? Note the use in the first article of evaluative language – furious bosses, cautious councillors, reacted angrily – which is largely absent from the second which is more concerned with taking a factual tone. This change is then also expressed through the shift from metaphorical grammatical choices (meet tonight, are to be…tomorrow) to non-metaphorical (will tonight, will be…tomorrow).

To return to our meeting, a shift to primary present (I have a meeting) may then be narrowed in focus with the present-in present to express who (I’m having a meeting with John), where (We’re meeting in the boardroom) or what time (We’re starting at 2pm). It’s also possible, however, that we might want to put some metaphorical distance between speaker and event. In this case we might shift to a present-in future (I’ll be having a meeting with John).

Hopefully, by presenting the event in this way the students can begin to think about the ways in which speakers make grammatical choices and the reasons why those might be made.


Activity: Polite requests and grammatical metaphor

We often try to introduce students, especially in higher Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels,  to ‘Could you …’ type polite requests  but I’ve found that textbooks do not always explain quite adequately exactly WHY one form is more polite than another. This is a simple little activity that might make it a little clearer and students have found helpful.

First, think about household requests (field), like hang the washing out, do the washing up, etc. and write each request on a piece of small paper. Next, write on the whiteboard the following:

1. Open the door please.
2. Will you open the door please?
3. Can you open the door please?
4. Could you open the door please?
5. Would you mind opening the door please?
6. You wouldn’t mind opening the door would you please?

The activity is then very simple. A student picks up a piece of paper with an activity written (‘turn on the heater’), rolls a dice (‘5’) and uses the corresponding form from the list (Would you turn on the heater please?).

Either before or after the activity we can look at just why some forms appear more polite than others. Students often assume that one form is inherently more polite than another but this is not really the case. I think the answer is in different forms of grammatical metaphor. In terms of the discourse semantics  of exchange all six of the requests above are exactly the same – a demand for service. In only first one, however, does the lexico-grammar match the semantics with an imperative clause. From there we go through a series of changes through grammatical metaphor that puts distance between the discourse function and lexico-grammatical form.

From 1. to 2. we change from imperative to interrogative clause. Then, in 3., we change the element of modality and then from 3. to 4. there is a further shift from present to past tense. This use of the past tense for politeness, by putting (metaphorical) distance between the speaker and the lexico-grammar, is often new to most students but can be an important part of politeness in English (compare Do you want…? with Did you want…? for example). Then, in 5., there is an example of nominalisation (open opening) and a shift from a material Process to a mental one (mind). Finally, there is a change from an interrogative clause to a declarative clause + tag.


Activity: TPR, Directions and Interpersonal Semantics

Recently, I’ve been spending more time with lower level learners on the Interpersonal semantics of exchange. This is a short activity that tries to highlight the differences between giving/demanding information and giving/demanding service in a more physical way. It is based on a ‘Giving Directions’ lesson and is a kind of TPR game.

First, highlight on the whiteboard the four (although the game concentrates mainly on the first three):

  1. Demanding Information: Where is the station?/Is it far?
  2. Demanding Service: Turn left.
  3. Giving Information: It’s on the left.
  4. Giving Service: Shall I take you?

The game is then very simple. All the students stand and the teacher reads a line of script from a ‘Giving Directions’ lesson and the students must perform an action that reflects the role of the listener. If the line is 1., the students point (showing). If the line is 2., the students walk once on the spot (action). If the line is 3., the students put their hand to their ear (listening). If a student makes a mistake, he or she sits down. The last one standing is the winner. To make the game increasingly more difficult, the lines can be spoken more quickly so that students have to focus mainly on intonation and initial sounds, or lines can be combined so that students have to perform two or more actions, e.g. When you reach the corner (3.), turn left (2.).

One tricky point that can also be introduced is the difference between Turn left, Demanding Service, and You turn left, Giving Information. I think the difference between them is one of expectation. For Turn left, the speaker expects that the action will be carried out immediately, whereas for You turn left the expectation is that this is just information that may or may not be acted upon at a later date. This can be a difficult concept. I often try to use the difference between giving directions on the street (more likely to be acted upon) and giving direction in a tourist information centre (information).


Teaching Problem/Solution clause relations with Headway

There is an activity in New New Headway Upper Intermediate about things you’d miss when travelling (p.14, Tapescript 1.9 – sorry I don’t have the actual recording here cause of copyright). The listening activity as it is presented doesn’t go beyond listening for specific ideational choices: a radio, a pillow, etc. I noticed, however, the listenings do present an excellent opportunity for listening for the Problem-Solution-Evaluation clause relation (see Hoey & Winter in Coultard. In the listenings, ‘things you miss’ when travelling is presented as a problem, a lack of some item, to be solved (it would be interesting to do a CDA analysis of Headway – I’ve noticed that ‘foreign travel’ is often presented as a ‘problem’ to be solved or overcome:). Here is the first listening:

Andrew: Well, the thing I miss most when I’m away from home is definitely listening to the radio. And the way I get round this, particularly when I go away for 2, 3 or 4 months or something, is to take a small short-wave radio that I found and take great trouble to tune in this short-wave radio to get an English-language station, something like the world service, and I’m there waving the aerial around and twiddling the knob and trying to find the correct kind of station but then suddenly, when it all comes in and you can hear it, it’s great – it really makes me feel like I’m back home, back in my bedroom, tuning in to weird programmes on wonderful subjects really.

The thing I noticed first was that it is only two sentences – the first sentence presents the problem while the second, one very long extended clause complex, presents the solution and evaluation. We can divide it thus into recognisable parts:

  1. PROBLEM: listening to the radio;
  2. SOLUTION: short-wave radio, English-language station;
  3. EVALUATION: it’s difficult and feel silly (waving, twiddling) but it’s great.

The listening can then be analysed on all three planes of Context, Content and Expression to see how the speaker signals the three parts of the clause relation.



The Finite is the element that “brings the proposition down to earth, so that it is something that can be argued about” (H & M, p.115). This can be done in one of two ways: (i) tense and (ii) modality. Tense allows a proposition to “become arguable through being located in time by reference to the speech event” (p116). Modality allows a proposition to become “arguable through being assessed in terms of the degree of probability or obligation that is associated with it” (p116). The negative sometimes belongs functionally with the Finite. Compare:

You may not stay (are not allowed to)
You may not stay (are allowed to)
Subject Finite Residue  

Tense and modality allow the Finite to “locate the exchange within the semiotic space that is opened up between the speaker and the listener” (p.116). This, I think, is an important point for EFL. Tense is not necessarily just related to the real-world time in which the exchange takes place. If we compare, for example, two questions that take place in the same real-world time:

  1. Do you want me to copy the report?
  2. Did you want me to copy the report?

The second of the two examples creates a greater space between the real-world time of the participants and tense in the clause and it is this greater “semantic space” that allows it to be perceived as more ‘polite’.

I think it’s also a good point to remember that within the interactive event, the primary element is the Finite – this is what makes it arguable – and the Predicator is secondary. This helps explain the difference between, for example, will and going to. When we say I will play tennis the event is being construed as taking place in a primary future that is, as such, unaccessable to the speakers now. It cannot change. In the case of I am going to play tennis, however, the primary element is the present am which locates the event as being still accessable to the speakers. The Predicator going to play is thus still within the present (future in present) and, as such, may be changed, altered or cancelled.



The Subject is the item that is “being held responsible” (H & M, p.117) for the validity of the argument and is identifiable by the tag question. If we take the example:

That teapot was given to your aunt, wasn’t it?

The teapot functions as both the Theme and the Subject and, as such, is unmarked. If we compare this, however, to:

That teapot the Duke gave to your aunt, didn’t he?

Here, the question is still ‘about’ the teapot, but it is the Duke who is “made to sustain the validity of the statement” (p118). Hence, the tag is “he”. We can see this responsibility in the case of certain offers and commands where the Subject is made responsible for the success of the outcome. For example, in I’ll be guided by your wishes, shall I? the speaker is not the Actor of the event but nonetheless is made to be responsible for its outcome.



For the clause as exchange, dialogue consists of four fundamental functions: statement, question, command and offer. The difference between them lies in the relationship of the Subject to the Finite. The Finite is the element that indicates either tense (is/was, do/did) or modality (can/must) and is often “fused into a single word” (H & M, p.111). He plays tennis, for example, can be expanded to He does play tennis. The Subject and the Finite can be identified through the Mood tag: He plays tennis, does he?
For statements, the relationship is Subject + Finite. This is called the declarative Mood:

I play tennis
Subject Finite Residue
For questions, the relationship is reversed. This is called the interrogative Mood. The interrogative Mood may either indicate polarity or content:

Do you play tennis?
What sports do you play?
Residue Finite Subject Residue
For commands, however, both the Subject and the Finite may be omitted. This is called the imperative Mood:

Play tennis!
We may, however, mark the imperative Mood to make it more emphatic or inclusive:

Do play tennis!
Let’s play tennis!
Subject Finite Residue

Offers, however, have no particular realization, although they often employ modal verbs.