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The questions in question are tag questions

There's a set of questions that we as speakers use regularly and that we may not realize have their own special name. They're called tag questions, and they're everywhere.

You probably don't know what a tag question is, do you? You want to learn about tag questions, don’t you? That's probably why you're reading this column, isn't it?

By now you've probably figured out what a tag question is, right?

Tag questions are those mini questions we sometimes tack onto the end of sentences to ask for confirmation. They can also do a few other things.

In English, there are a couple of kinds of tag questions. Invariant tag questions the same every time they’re used. Tags like right?, no?, and eh? don't change with relationship to the sentence or clause they follow.

Some tag questions depend on the grammar of the sentence or clause that comes before. More specifically, they depend on the verb or auxiliary verb.

Consider this example: "You know the answer, don't you?" If we switch things around -- "You don't know the answer, do you? -- the tag must also change. If you don’t change the tag, the sentence will sound strange – “You do know the answer, do you?”

Tag questions are often associated with less powerful language. The idea is that if you add the tag, you must need confirmation or affirmation that you're right. While that's certainly one of the things they can do, they can also serve as a way to invite people in. You'll often hear teachers use tag questions to invite students into the conversation.

However, it's not hard to imagine questions that are not without confidence. If a teacher says "You're going to turn that in on Monday, aren't you?" there's nothing to suggest that they're looking for a student's affirmation.

Another thing to consider is the speaker's intonation when they use a tag question. Check out this example: "You're going to work again this weekend, aren't you?" Depending on intonation, that can either sound like request for confirmation or an exasperated accusation.

Tag questions are somewhat complicated, aren't they?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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