Saturday, November 27, 2010

Good conversationalists phrase their tag questions with finesse

In social gatherings, we can identify English-proficient people right away by the correct and graceful way they phrase their “tag questions.” These are the questions they ask at the tail end of what they have just said—questions that are meant to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners, like the two-word question attached to this statement: “You chose that incompetent manager, didn’t you?” Honestly now, how good are you in framing your own tag questions? Do you ask them confidently and flawlessly, or are you sometimes still seized with self-doubt and falter when coming up with them?

In a two-part essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004, I discussed the general grammatical pattern for tag questions, the three ways of forming them, and the special cases of tag questions that don’t follow the general pattern. To help Forum members and guests achieve greater mastery in asking tag questions during their conversations, I have combined the two essays into one and posted it in this week’s edition of the Forum.   

I trust that reading the essay will help make you a more polished speaker in English and a more confident and graceful conversationalist. (November 27, 2010)

Saying our tag questions right

A good indicator of one’s English proficiency is the ability to use tag questions properly. But wait—we all know what “tag questions” are, don’t we all? Well, if some of us don’t or have already forgotten, the mini-question “don’t we all?” in the preceding sentence is what’s called a tag question. Some grammarians prefer to call it a “question tag,” and the whole statement inclusive of that mini-question the “tag question.” For our purposes, however, we will refer to the mini-question as the tag question itself, or “tag” for short; we will not quibble over the terminology. The important thing is for us to fully appreciate and understand how native English speakers purposively use tag questions to get a quick confirmation or reaction from their listeners. With that, we should be able to form English tag questions ourselves with greater confidence, using them flawlessly to emphasize our thoughts and ideas and to elicit the desired response from our listeners.

The general pattern for tag questions

Most of us will probably recall that tag questions generally follow a definite pattern: a positive statement is followed by a negative tag question, and a negative statement is followed by a positive tag question. Since tags are meant to be spoken, of course, it’s normal to use contractions of the negative forms of verbs either in the tag question or in the main statement itself.

Here’s a quick drill to jog our rusty memories about the grammar of tags. From the positive standpoint: “She is, isn’t she?” “They do, don’t they?” “We can, can’t we?” “You are Filipino, aren’t you?” And from the negative standpoint: “She doesn’t, does she?” “They don’t, do they?” “We can’t, can we?” “You aren’t Filipino, are you?”

We can see that the tag questions above are all of opposite polarity to that of the main statement. Also, we must keep in mind that without exception, the verb in a tag question always has the same tense as the verb in the main statement. (In speech, we must note here, there should always be a brief pause between the main statement and the tag question; in writing, this brief pause must always be indicated by a comma between the main statement and the tag question.)

Three ways of forming tag questions

Some of us will probably recall that depending on the kind of verb used in the main statement, there are actually three ways of forming tag questions. First, if that verb is a form of the auxiliary verb “be,” the same form of that verb must be used in the tag question: “He is from Manila, isn’t he?” “We aren’t that bad, are we?” “They were of foreign origin, weren’t they?” Second, if a main statement uses a modal such as “can,” “could,” or “should,” the same modal must be used in tag question: “She can dance, can’t she?” “They couldn’t do that, could they?” “We shouldn’t interfere in their affairs, should we?” And third, if the main statement uses an active verb (instead of only an auxiliary verb), the appropriate form of the auxiliary verb “do” takes the place of that active verb in the tag question: “She loves you, doesn’t she?” “You take me for granted, don’t you?” “They played the part, didn’t they?” 

We will recall, too, that when a main statement has a proper name as subject, the tag question must use its pronoun instead: “Jennifer is doing well in Singapore, isn’t she?” “Manila isn’t the tourist capital in Asia these days, is it?” “Some Australians eat kangaroo meat, don’t they?” “Nestle is the biggest food company in the world, isn’t it?”

Special cases of tag questions

We must be aware, however, that some special cases of English-language tag questions don’t strictly follow the norms that we have just discussed. Here are two such tags that seemingly look and sound askew: “Let’s go out, shall we?” “Let’s not go out, shall we?” Are the tags here proper or not? Yes, they are. Even if these tags often raise the hackles of grammar purists, native English speakers accept and use both of them. The strictly grammatical to say “Let’s go out, shall we?” is, of course, “We’ll go out, shan’t we?”, but it sounds stiff and unnatural. Here are two natural-sounding alternatives that should sit in well with Filipinos: “Let’s go out, all right?” “Let’s go out, okay?”

Another notable special case involving tags is the whole range of statements that use “nothing,” “nobody,” and “no one” as their subject. In such cases, the statements should be considered of negative polarity, and their tag questions should be given a positive polarity: “Nothing came in the mail, was there?” “Nobody bothered you last night, was there?” “No one wants this, is there?”

Here are a few more tags that don’t scrupulously follow that polarity rule: “I’m correct, aren’t I?” (Not “I’m correct, amn’t I?” The awkward tag “amn’t I” is “am I not?” in contracted form, which is unacceptable grammar). “She’d better take it, hadn’t she?” (Not “She’d better take it, wouldn’t she?” The tag “hadn’t she?” is actually “had she better not?” in contracted form. That tag is the logical polar negative of the full statement “She had better take it,” where the operative verb form is “had better,” not “take.”). “This will do, won’t it?” (Not “This will do, willen’t it?”—which uses a tag that doesn’t exist in English. Conversely, the reverse-polarity statement will be “This won’t do, will it?”) 

Tag questions that ignore the opposite polarity rule

Another exception about tags that bewilders many nonnative English speakers is this: the opposite polarity rule can actually be pointedly ignored when people want to strongly express sarcasm, disbelief, surprise, concern, shock, or anger. Take the following examples: “You think you’re indispensable, do you?” “Oh, you will really do that, will you?” “Oh, she really left him, did she?” “So you’re finally getting married, are you? That’s great!” (Or the contrary sentiment: “So she’s finally getting married, is she? The nerve!”) “And you think that’s amusing, do you?” And then, as a mark of politeness, positive tags can also be routinely attached to positive requests: “Come here, will you?” “Do that, will you?” “Please hand me that screw driver, will you?”

When people use negative statements with negative tag questions, on the other hand, it is not necessarily bad grammar but a sure sign of the breakdown of civility or of downright hostility and combativeness: “So you don’t love me at all, don’t you?” “You really didn’t like the idea, didn’t you?” “So you don’t think my school is good enough, don’t you?” “So you didn’t want peace after all, didn’t you?” The negative tags emphasize the negativeness of the main statement to deliberately rile people or to make them feel guilty. They give vent to feelings of meanness.

Negative statements with positive tag questions

Now, from experience, we all know that using negative statements with positive tag questions in the standard manner is the polite, socially acceptable way of asking for information or help. Such statements are particularly useful if we don’t know the people being addressed. It is rude, for instance, to simply approach or accost at the mall someone we don’t know and ask, pointblank, “Where’s the women’s room?” The civilized way, of course, is to restate that question to the needed degree of politeness, depending on who is being addressed.

Here’s that same question said a little bit more politely, addressed to people of about the same age or social station as the speaker: “Do you know where the women’s room is?” (A tag question isn’t used in such cases.) Now here it is in a polite, nonaggressive form, this time addressed to people older or of a higher social station than us: “You wouldn’t know where the women’s room is, would you?” (This time, the question form “Do you know...?” and the tag question that follows make the statement sufficiently deferential.)

Here are a few more patterns of negative statements with positive tag questions, the use of which should make us more pleasant, convivial people to deal with: “You don’t know of any job openings in your company at this time, do you?” “You don’t happen to know where the stock exchange building is, do you?” “You wouldn’t be willing to lose all that money in gambling, would you?” “You haven’t got anything to do with what happened, do you?” “You can’t spare me a thousand for my son’s tuition, can you?” “You can’t believe it that the woman’s leading the race, can you?”

The beauty of negative statements with positive tag questions is that they subtly prime up the listener’s mind either to accept the given idea or to decline it quickly and gracefully; in fact, refusing to answer the positive tag questions at all actually will make the person being addressed look rude and impolite. In this classic communication gambit of appealing to the other’s goodness of heart and of cushioning a possible blow to one’s self-esteem before that blow is even inflicted, nobody should lose face whatever the answer might be. (May 24 and 31, 2004)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, issues of May 24 and 31, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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