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)


Polarity is, the “choice between positive and negative” (H & M, p.116). The concept of polarity in general, and specifically the negative, doesn’t seem to get much attention or specific textbook treatment (except perhaps in old audio-lingual drills) but, as Halliday says, “choosing positive is just as substantive and meaningful as choosing negative” (H & M, p.143). Polarity is one way that allows speech functions to be arguable in terms of exchange by setting up an opposition between ‘yes’ and ‘no’: “either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ (proposition), either ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ (proposal)” (p.116).

The polarity may be attached to either the Finite (temporal or modal) or the proposition*. Thus we may have:

  • I don’t have to go. (finite)
  • I have to not go. (proposition)

Which may also be combined:

  • I don’t have to not go.

The difference between them may be shown with a question tag, where the unmarked form of the tag reverses the polarity. As such, if the polarity is attached to the Finite we get:

  • She couldn’t have known, could she?

But if the polarity is attached to the proposition it becomes a distinct modal Adjunct and the tag is reversed:

  • She could have not known, couldn’t she?

As a modal Adjunct, the polarity then has the ability to form a mood element itself, often in non-finite clauses for example:

  • Not being funny but…
  • Never having been myself…

It is also seen with a corresponding change in intonation:


However, polarity is most commonly associated with the Finite which “reflects the systemic association of polarity with mood” (H & M, p.143). This is shown in English with contracted forms where the “negative marker may be reduced to the point where positive and negative are more or less equivalent in weight” (H & M, p.143) and it is only the Finite element that allows this to happen. From this we can also see that reduced forms are more than just ‘sounding natural’ but represent a meaningful distinction.

*The choice of one or the other does seem to be affected by context: I’ve noticed that English spoken in the North of England, such as Liverpool, tends to focus more on the proposition in negative question forms (Did you not want to come?) while that spoken in the South focuses more on the Finite (Didn’t you want to come?). As EFL textbooks are largely based on upper middle-class language of the South this distinction tends to get overlooked.

Modality – ability

One last category of modality is that of ability/potentiality, which may be expressed either subjective explicit (she can/can’t...) or objective explicit (she is/isn’t able to…). As H & M (p. 621) put it, ability “is on the fringe of the modality system” yet I think the implications of this for EFL learning are not highlighted often enough. Ability is mostly introduced with the ‘I can play tennis’-type lessons, which may be true (if unnatural), but the importance of ability lying outside the main system of modality is seen, for example, if we compare requests such as ‘Could you help me?‘, which is a neutral acknowledgement that you have the ability to help me, against ‘Would you help me?‘ which, being in the main system of modality, is asserting my opinion that you should help me.

Another classroom activity I use to introduce this difference is by drawing a squiggle on a piece of paper. We can then see who has the best imagination by making a list of what it possibly could be: a butterfly, a map, a doodle, etc. The point here is that it not our own personal opinion, we are merely making a list. Then, students can choose what they see as the best choice of what it might be, introducing personal responsibility for a decision. This activity can be adapted for business or higher level students with a role play activity discussing changes to an office building to make it more environmentally friendly by first listing the possible options (we could install double glazing) and then offering a personal assessment of that choice (it would save electricity, it might be expensive).

Modality – modulation (inclination)

Modulation operates on proposals, where “the meaning of the positive and negative poles is prescribing and proscribing: positive ‘do it’ and negative ‘don’t do it’ [and] there are two kinds of intermediate possibility, in this case depending on the speech function, whether command or offer” (H & M, p.147). For offers, it represents a degree of inclination, and here we also have a subjective or objective orientation, although as in usuality only the implicit is available.

1.  Subjective

High: I must do it.

Medium: I’ll do it.

Low: I may do it.

2. Objective

High: I’m determined to do it.

Medium: I’m keen to do it.

Low: I’m willing to do it.

Modality – Modalization (usuality)

Modalization operates on propositions, in the space between ‘It is…‘ and ‘It isn’t…‘. There are “two kinds of intermediate possibilities: (i) degrees of probability [and] (ii) degrees of usuality” (H & M, p.147). Usuality is “equivalent to ‘both yes and no’, that is, sometimes yes, sometimes no, with different degrees of oftenness attached”. Here is a description of Koala feeding patterns from Australian Wildlife:

They will feed at any time of day, but usually at night.

This demonstrates the two types of orientation for the system of usuality.

1.  Subjective (implicit)

High: It (does) rain.

Medium: It will rain.

Low: It may rain.

2.  Objective (implicit)

High: It always rains.

Medium: It usually rains.

Low: It sometimes rains.

Unlike probability, there is “no systematic form for making the subjective orientation explicit” (H & M, p.619) but it is possible to make the objective orientation explicit with items such as, It’s common for it to rain; It’s usual for it to rain.

Modality – modalization (probability)

Modalization operates on propositions, in the space between ‘It is…‘ and ‘It isn’t…‘. There are “two kinds of intermediate possibilities: (i) degrees of probability [and] (ii) degrees of usuality” (H & M, p.147). Probability is concerned with “‘either yes or no’, that is, maybe yes, maybe no, with different degrees of likelihood attached. This degree of likelihood may be construed as being either subjective or objective.

1.  Subjective

Here is a quote from Bill O’Reilly, cited on Huffington Post:

I may be an idiot.

This expresses a Low subjective opinion that implicitly admits to the possibility of it being true. We can change this, of course, to High:

I must be an idiot.

We have, then, three values of implicit subjective probability:

High: She must know.

Medium: She’ll know.

Low: She may know.

We can also make the Medium and Low values softer by creating metaphorical distance through the past tense: She’ll know She’d know and She may know She might know.

We can also, however, make this subjective opinion more explicit with grammatical metaphor. Here, being concerned with opinions and statements, we most commonly use mental Processes:

High: I know she knows.

Medium: I think she knows.

Low: I guess she knows.

2.  Objective

Here is an overheard conversation that was reported in Column 8:

Lady: How much is this metal hat stand?

Vendor: $260. It’s Victorian.

Lady: Well you must mean it comes from Melbourne, because it’s certainly not that  old.

After subjective hedging to imply ‘it’s just my opinion’ (you must mean), the speaker offers an objective assessment regarding the age of the hat stand (it’s certainly not that old) that is also construed as being ‘obvious’, or implicit. Again, we can have three values:

High: She certainly knows.

Medium: She probably knows.

Low: She possibly knows.

We can also construe it as being an explicit objective opinion, metaphorically separate from the speaker:

High: It’s certain that she knows.

Medium: It’s probable that she knows.

Low: It’s possible that she knows.

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)

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).

Error Correction & SFL

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about error correction techniques for speaking classes. One study (Lyster, R. & Ranta, L. 1997, ‘Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in communicative classrooms’, Studies in Second Language Acquisition 19/1: 37-61) classified correction into six types:

  1. Explicit correction
  2. Recasts
  3. Clarification requests
  4. Metalinguistic feedback
  5. Elicitation
  6. Repetition

As a student of Japanese as a Foreign Language, and living in Japan, I’ve noticed from my own language-learning experience that the first two are by far the most common techniques used and also, as Lyster & Ranta also found, the least effective. The problem is that they focus solely on the form of the utterance. By doing so, I think they relegate, or give the appearance of relegating, the learner’s move into a second-order register. For the learner trying to focus on a primary register of meaning and content this can be frustrating (and possibly slightly demeaning).

Rather than focus on the form of the error then, I’ve recently begun trying to focus on the content as way of developing greater delicacy in the student’s linguistic system. To do this I try to focus on the error as if it were an actual discourse move and from there try to build the range of options available to the student. It is similar to the concept of scaffolding in a Vygoskian sense:

  1. Highlight the error as it relates to meaning;
  2. Negotiate more options of a greater delicacy;
  3. Rephrase

Some examples. One common Ideational problem for Japanese (and many other) EFL learners is not distinguishing between count/mass with mental processes, for example *I like dog. In this case, I ask the student questions like how long they have eaten dog or what it tastes like, focusing on the meaning of the clause, which leads to confusion. Then, I demonstrate the functional difference between dog/dogs and the fact that for count nouns the plural is often the unmarked, general form (chickens are stupid v chicken is delicious) which is the reason for the confusion. Then, we restate the original utterance with greater delicacy, I like dogs.

Another example, this time Interpersonal, is where learners will omit the Finite and Subject in wh-question leading to errors such as what time get up? Here, rather than just providing the correct form, I’ll try to illustrate why it is dis-functional. First, I will get the student to ask the question again and highlight the fact that without the Subject we don’t know who the question is directed at. Then, without the Finite we don’t know the time that the question refers to, today, tomorrow or everyday. In this way, we can build up the elements of the Interpersonal clause.

A final Textual error is a common example of L1 transference from Japanese. When asked about the weekend, some learners will produce *Tomorrow is play tennis. Japanese uses a topic marker, -wa, whereas English uses position. Also the Subject may be omitted if it is understood from context. Thus, the Japanese is Ashita-wa tennis suru (tomorrow-topic tennis will do). First, highlight the error by, perhaps, pretending not to understand. Then, illustrate the difference between I will play tennis tomorrow (Subject as unmarked Theme) and Tomorrow, I will play tennis (Circumstance as marked Theme). Finally, rephrase the original utterence.