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.
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?
5. (Near-) synonymous expression
A: But that’s really quite quite bad, isn’t it?
B: Dreadful, poor parents.
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)