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)

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Finite

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.

Subject

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.

Mood

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
Mood:declarative
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
Mood:interrogative
For commands, however, both the Subject and the Finite may be omitted. This is called the imperative Mood:

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

Do play tennis!
Let’s play tennis!
Subject Finite Residue
Mood:imperative

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

Move

Semantically, the clause is an “interactive event involving speaker, or writer, and audience” (H & M, p.106). The move in this event is whether we want to initiate or have to respond. This may seem a rather obvious point, that we speak to someone who is listening, but it one that is often overlooked, especially within EFL. Looking at the two sentences below might help demonstrate the importance of this concept of exchange more clearly:

  1. It is a pen.
  2. This is a pen.

These two might commonly be found in beginner EFL or young learner texts yet rarely is the difference between them made clear. The first is how you might respond within an exchange to provide new information:

A: What’s that you’ve got there?

B: (It’s) a pen.

This is also evident in written text. The following headline (from www.techcrunch.com) is, in fact, a response to an assumed question on the part of the reader signalled intertextually by a picture which takes the role of initiating the exchange:

Picture: (What’s this?)

Headline: It’s a pen! It’s a bullet! It writes upside down and underwater! It’s a bullet pen!

The second example, however, is how we might initiate an exchange, explicitly drawing attention to the topic of discussion and inviting a response:

Jack: This is an astronaut pen. It writes upside down. They use this in space.

Jerry: Wow.

(Seinfeld, S3, E3)

From these two examples we can see that the move of the exchange, whether to initiate or respond, can thus influence the lexico-grammatical choices made within the clause. The choice between it and this is not the result of sentence-level rules but is instead dependent on how the clause functions within the exchange. It also demonstrates the interactive nature of the exchange, that “the speaker adopts for himself a particular speech role, and in doing so assigns to the listener a complementary role which he wishes him to adopt in his turn” (H & M, p.106). The added consequence of this is that the choices available for the response are constrained by those made in the initial move (see also Eggins & Slade, 1997, p.181-2).

There are two types of initiation: open, which is dependent on whether it is an offer, a command, a statement or a question and generally takes the form of a major clause, or a response request, which is the function of the tag question. I think it is important for learners to be aware that the tag question is not just a request for a response, as it is generally presented in textbooks, but it may also function as a request to not respond, to close down the conversation.

There are also two types of response: expected or discretionary. How the two functions of response operate may vary according to nature of the interaction. In the case of an offer, the response may be either one of acceptance or rejection:

              Offer:                    Would you like it?

              Acceptance:        Yes, please.

              Rejection:            No, thanks.

Where a demand is made, the response may be either an undertaking or a refusal:

               Command:           Give it to me!

              Undertaking:       Here you are.

              Refusal:                I won’t!

For questions, we may have either an answer or a disclaimer:

              Question:            What is it?

              Answer:               A teapot.

              Disclaimer:          I don’t know.

For statements, there may be either a response or a contradiction:

              Statement:          He’s giving it to her.

              Response:            Is he?

              Contradiction:     No, he isn’t.

(all examples from H & M, p.108)

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