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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Clause vs Sentence

The difference between a clause and a sentence can be difficult, but important. A clause basically must have a Finite whereas a sentence is just an orthographic convention beginning with a capital and ending with a full stop. Here is a text from SMH that illustrates this difference nicely:

When designing their own home, architects Sacha Zehnder and Jaya Param of Walk North Architects were reminded regularly they’d chosen ”the most difficult block” in the area.
Steep, tree-covered, 50 metres above sea level, with no road access; and, on idyllic but somewhat logistically challenging Scotland Island, in the middle of Pittwater and accessible only by boat.

Here the first part actually contains three clauses in one sentence: a mental Process (‘were reminded’) and a projected clause (‘had chosen’) plus a hypotactic ‘when’ clause. The second part, on the other hand, is a ‘sentence’, in that it begins with a capital and ends with a full stop, but is not a clause as there is no Finite element. I think the second sentence is, in fact, a kind of logico-semantic relation of enhancement giving reasons why the area is ‘difficult’ (although I guess you could also it’s elaboration – exemplifying the ‘area’).

I think a lot of EFL students might miss the logico-semantic link between the two parts if they are not familiar with the difference between ‘sentence’ and ‘clause’.

Modality – system

Modality when presented to EFL learners is often limited to items such as should, could, must, etc. but the complete system network does extend beyond this, and I try to show students how the whole system interacts first rather than the usual ‘bottom-up’ approach. Here are some examples from the BNC with the modality underlined:

  1. Erm the Englishman always likes to stick one on them and
  2. I think that’ll be the case tonight
  3. Of course, it can be difficult to estimate size of, say, an ankle
  4. It is possible that future cohorts of older people will illustrate different patterns of disability.

(I love the idea of ‘cohorts of older people’.) Here we can see that only one of these, No. 3, uses traditional ‘modality’. Even this may confuse learners used to ‘can’ as ability only. Here it operates within modalization to express usuality. Together with modulation, it makes up the system of MODALITY TYPE.

Example No. 1 also expresses usuality but, unlike No. 3 which is presented more as a subjective opinion, it is presented as a kind of understood fact. From this we can see that modality can be expressed both subjectively and objectively. Both No. 1 and No. 3 are presented as being somehow implicitly ‘understood’, yet it is also possible to make this explicit by employing grammatical metaphor, as in No. 2. Rather than ‘That’ll certainly be the case’ we can project it with a mental clause + idea clause (I think + that’ll be the case). This is still, however, a subjective opinion. We may wish to present it objectively with a relational clause + factual Carrier as in No. 4 (It is possible + that future cohorts of older people will illustrate...). These expressions of subjective-objective and implicit-explicit together make up the system of ORIENTATION. One gap in this is that “there are no systematic forms for making the subjective orientation explicit in the case of usuality or inclination” (H & M, p.619).

We can also notice, however, that some of the examples are stronger than others. No. 1 is presented as being of high probablity while No. 3 of low probablity. No. 2 is medium. These three together give us the system of VALUE.

All of the examples above are positive. It is, of course, also possible to make them negative within a system of POLARITY. Notice, however, that there is a subtle difference between the polarity being directly on the proposition (I think that won’t be the case) or transferred to the modality (I don’t think that’ll be the case).

From all this we can now get the system network of modality:

(From H & M, p.150)

Modality

Modality operates to “construe the region of uncertainty that lies between ‘yes’ and ‘no'” (H & M, p.147). In order to treat modality somewhat more systematically than is usually the case in EFL treatments, we need to go back to the nature of dialogue and the speech function of the clause. In SFL, a clause is either a proposition, an ‘information type’, or a proposal, a ‘goods-&-services type’.

For propositions, the space between yes and no is a choice between two options. The first is a probability of either yes or no (There can’t be many candlestick makers left), while the second is a degree of usuality of both yes and no (It‘ll change right there in front of your eyes). These two can be referred to as modalization.

For goods-&-services, there is a choice between some degree of obligation to perform a command (The roads should pay for themselves, like the railways) or an inclination to perform an offer (Voters won’t pay taxes anymore). These two we can refer to as modulation.

Taking the two modality types of modalization and modulation together, we can now see the system more clearly:

(Figure and all examples from H & M, p.618)

Material Clauses 4

Material clauses represent “a quantum of change…unfolding through distinct phases” (H & M, p.184). This unfolding necessarily has an outcome: “a change of some feature of one of the participants” (H & M, p.184). This outcome may be either creative or transformative.

In a creative type of clause, the Actor (in an intransitive clause) or the Goal (in a transitive clause) “is construed as being brought into existence as the process unfolds” (H & M, p.184):

  • Intransitive (What happened?) – Icicles formed.
  • Transitive (What did they do?) – They built a house.

In a transitive type of clause, the outcome is “the change of some aspect of an already existing Actor (intransitive) or Goal (transitive)” (H & M, p.185):

  • Intransitive (What happened to it?) – The icicles melted.
  •                        (What did he do?) – He ran away.
  • Transitive (What happened to it?) – The sun melted the icicles.
  •                     (What did they do to him?) – They chased him away.

The outcome of the transformation is an (1) elaboration, (2) extension or (3) enhancement of the Actor or Goal. For examples, see here.

As for EFL, I think this creative/transformative distinction could also help make the whole transitive/intransitive a bit clearer for students by focusing not just on the process (for example, by having a long list of tansitive and intransitive verbs) but also demonstrating the function of the Actor and the Goal in the unfolding of the clause.

 

Existential Processes 2

Most, if not all, EFL textbooks first introduce existential clauses through either singular/plural (There is a…/There are some…) or mass/count (There is some…/There are some…) distinctions. This, however, I think misses the whole point of the existential process. Singular and mass etc. are additional information that is mapped onto the clause. The unmarked existential Process seems to be actually There’s…, with a negative of There’s no…, regardless of whether it is count or mass. I’ve tried it a few times with native English (usually British or Australian) speakers with picture description. Show a picture of fruit and ask them what fruit is in the picture. Invariably, when they are just indicating existence, they will use There’s… for both count and mass.

On the BNC, some numbers are:

  • There’s – 32,210 hits
  • There is – 58,353
  • There are – 40,007
  • There’s no – 4,386
  • There isn’t – 944
  • There aren’t – 439
  • There’s [noun.SG] – 610
  • There’s [noun.PL] – 353

So, I think the traditional approach of concentrating on the count/mass distinction does not really reflect accurately the usage of the existential clause. In my own classes, I try to use There’s…/There’s no… for speaking activities without worrying so much about mass or count and then for writing activities, where more information needs to be made textually explicit, I’ll get students using There is…/There are… more consciously.

Existential Processes

An existential clause, such as There was an old person of Dover, functions to “represent that something exists or happens…The word there in such clauses is neither a participant nor a circumstance – it has no representational function in the transitivity structure of the clause; but it serves to indicate the feature of existence, and it is needed interpersonally as a Subject” (H & M, p.257). The second part of the clause, the “entity or event which is being said to exist” (H & M, p.258) is labelled the Existent.

Students may often confuse the existential ‘there’ with the circumstantial ‘there’. A good example from H & M (p.258) is to compare There’s your father on the line (existential) with There’s your father (circumstantial relational). Note that the response to the first is Oh, is there? while that for the second is Oh, is he?

The existential clause itself, however, may contain “a distinct circumstantial element of time or place” (H & M, p.258) in which, if thematic, the Subject there may be omitted, such as On the wall (there) was a Picasso painting, but will appear in the response Oh, is there? This circumstantial element may also be reflected in the choice of verb as Process, which is not necessarily be but may almost merge into the material, such as On the wall (there) hangs a Picasso painting. This may also be followed by a non-finite clause as a “way of ‘locating’ the process in space-time” (H & M, p.258):

There stood G. F. Westerby, looking pleased with
himself, staring out over the decades (BNC)

Activity: relational & material Processes

Here is an activity I often do with Elementary or Pre-Intermediate students that gets them noticing and thinking about the difference between relational Processes which construe ‘states’, and material Processes construing change through time.

On a piece of paper, you need three columns: the middle column is blank while on either side there are opposing relational clauses (either written or visual), for example:

[The cup is empty]    [    blank    ]    [The cup is full]

The task for the students is to explain how the change in state occurred, which requires a material clause, such as, She is pouring the tea. This also gets students noticing that there is no ONE right answer but may be construed in many different ways: She is filling the cup, The cup is being filled, The tea is being poured, etc. Some other relational clauses I’ve used are: The water is cold/ The water is hot; He is in the hall/ He is in the living room; I have the pen/ She has the pen; The door is closed/ The door is open; She is on the platform/ She is on the train, etc.

For more advanced students, the activity may also be expanded to include choices involving transitive (She is filling the bottle) or intransitive (The bottle is filling up) clauses. The sequence may also be linked into one sentence with conjunction:

The cup was empty and then she filled it until it was full;

 

Relational Processes (1)

A typical EFL first lesson often includes self-introductions of the kind like:

My name is Taro. I am 12 years old. 

These clauses use relational Processes, which “serve to characterize and to identify” (H & M, p.210). These two categories may also be termed attributive, such as Taro characterized as a member of that class of beings called ’12 years olds’, and identifying, such as the identity of the person named ‘Taro’. Note the important difference between the two is that identifying relational clauses may be reversed (My name is Taro/ Taro is my name) whereas attributive clauses may not (I am 12/ *12 am I).

Within these two categories of attributive and identifying, we may also provide more information about Taro through three different types:

1. Intensive:  Taro is tall (attributive) / Taro is the tallest in the class; the tallest is Taro (identifying)

2. Possessive: Taro has a black bag (attributive) / The black bag is Taro’s; Taro’s is the black bag (identifying)

3. Circumstantial: Taro is at home (attributive) / Home is Tokyo; Tokyo is home (identifying)

Relational processes “prototypically construe change as unfolding ‘inertly’, without an input of energy” (H & M, p.211). They are construed as ‘static’ as opposed to material processes which are ‘dynamic’. Also, whereas material processes construe the world of ‘outer’ experience (Taro is watching TV) and mental processes construe ‘inner’ experience (Taro likes Conan), relational processes may construe both ‘outer’ (Taro is in the living room) and ‘inner’ (Taro is happy).

Mental Processes

Mental clauses “are concerned with our experience of the world of our own consciousness” (H & M, p.197). Mental clauses consist of a Sensor, which is a human participant, and a Phenomenon:

Mary (Sensor) liked (Process: mental) the gift (Phenomenon)

Alternatively, this example may also be construed as:

The gift (Phenomenon) pleased (Process: mental) Mary (Sensor)

There are, therefore, two directions of mental Process: those that emanate from the Sensor (‘like’-type) or those that impinge upon the Sensor (‘please’-type). More examples can be seen here. As well as this, mental Processes may be divided into four distinct types:

  1. Perceptive – He saw the car
  2. Cognitive – He knows the car
  3. Desiderative – He wants the car
  4. Emotive – He likes the car

The Phenomenon may be a thing, as in ‘the gift’ above, or it may be an act or a fact. In the case of the Phenomenon as thing, this may also be metaphorical:

Amnesty (Sensor) found (Process: mental) persistent abuses (Phenomenon)

Where the Phenomenon is an act (termed macrophenomenal clauses) it is usually realized by a non-finite clause and the Process is usually restricted to those of perception:

He (Sensor) saw (Process: mental) [[the sand dredger heading for the cruiser]] (Phenomenon)

The macrophenomenonal Phenomenon may also function as Subject, yet it is usually only the Subject of the non-finite clause that is picked out rather than the whole Phenomenon:

The sand dredger was seen heading for the cruiser

Where the Phenomenon is a fact (termed metaphenomenal clauses) it is typically realized by a finite clause:

I (Sensor) can see (Process: mental) this town is going to hell fast (Phenomenon)

(All examples from H & M, p.200-205)

One further option available to mental clauses that distinguish them from both material and relational ones is the ability to project another clause as an idea, as in this Peanuts cartoon where Charles and Linus project their ideas and opinions (underline) using mental Processes (bold) (but I don’t actually know how to embed a cartoon in here) –

Charlie: You know Linus, I admit I can see some value in this blanket business…It seems to put you in a mood for contemplation…I imagine it really quiets your mind so you can think about things…

Linus: On the contrary. I find that, to be done properly, sucking your thumb and holding your blanket requires complete concentration!