The headache that is question tags

Remember question tags?

They are one of the trickiest features of the English language to get right: question tags. If you don’t know what those are, allow me to give you a list, and you will probably remember your English teacher at school trying to drum them into you:

It’s raining outside, isn’t it?

They want to come in, don’t they?

She won’t tell them our secret, will she?

We’d better get going, hadn’t we?

They have to get going, don’t they?

I promise those last two are correct. I added them to make the point of how horrible the bloody things are.

Remember now? It was all about finding the auxiliary verb (= hulpwerkwoord), or using “do” if there wasn’t one, and changing positive to negative and negative to positive.

Question tags are hard

Even if you are a language nerd who enjoys the kind of logical puzzle that this grammar presents, you will only be good at doing them on paper. Spoken English is fast, your brain is engaged with what you are saying and how you are saying it at the same time, and there is no time to go back into the sentence you just said to figure out what the auxiliary verb was and if your question tag should be positive or negative. Consequently this little detail of the English language is one of those features that remains difficult even for people who are otherwise excellent at English.

But you can’t avoid questions tags, can you?

(See what I did there?)

Here’s the great news: you can. Check it out:

It’s raining outside, right?

They want to come in, right?

She won’t tell them our secret, right?

We’d better get going, right?

They have to get going, right?

There you go. Just like that, the whole question-tag headache cured.

If you don’t like “right”, or if it doesn’t fit for your particular sentence (which I will admit can happen) you could also try “don’t you think?”.

I would advise against copying local variants, like the London “innit?” or the African-American “word?”, or the Canadian “eh?” (pronounced “ey”), because even though as a linguist I will fight anyone who suggests that these variants aren’t “proper English”, as a person who lives in the real world I have to admit that if you use them you might have trouble getting hired or married or whatever else it is you are trying to achieve by speaking English.

You should also avoid the Dutch “hè”, which just sounds very very odd to non-Dutch ears. With practice, you could try to adopt an American “huh“, but keep in mind that the tone goes down at the end, where the Dutch “hè” goes up.

Also, the above is especially good for when you are speaking, or writing informally. If you are writing formal English, you might have to use some actual question tags. But in that case you’ll have time to think about them.

Difficult grammar can be exploited

When I started out as an English teacher for adults (a long, long time ago), teaching lawyers and doctors and bankers, I would use question tags to my advantage. I got paid by the hour, and question tags were a wonderful way to fill those hours in a way that didn’t require a lot of preparation or mental effort from me. I only needed to copy some handouts and I was done.

They were also excellent for convincing the students that they weren’t as good at English as they thought they were, and perhaps they needed to pay for more lessons…

I see this tactic being used by a lot of language teachers, proofreaders and improve-your-English writers; focus on the little nitty details of English that are hard to get right and profit from the resulting insecurity. On this website I want to get away from this tactic.

I hope to welcome you back for more tips and tricks soon!

Did I miss anything?

Do you have questions after reading this article, or would you like to tell me how wrong I am. (Listen, I’m human, I might be!) Please leave a comment below.

Heddwen Newton is a teacher and translator. Her website EnglishforDutchpeople.nl is about efficient and unconventional ways for Dutch people to improve their already good English, and other nerdy stuff to do with English and Dutch. She also owns the Dutch website HoezegjeinhetEngels.nl where she discusses difficult-to-translate Dutch words and their least-bad English translations.

2 thoughts on “The headache that is question tags”

  1. If you’re coming to Canada, the anglo question tag is “eh”, as in “Looks like rain, eh?”. (“Eh” is pronounced like “ay” in day).

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