What Is a Tag Question?

Dan Harkins

Tag questions, or "question tags" in European circles, add at least a little bit of emphasis to everyday statements. In a quest for the respondent to either lend credence or discredit to a particular idea, these sentence addendums have been used as a conversational tool for centuries. These short statements tagged on the end of the longer question vary in structure, including utilitarian, balanced and unbalanced styles.

Tag questions add a little bit of emphasis to statements, such as, "We aren't eating pizza again, are we?"
Tag questions add a little bit of emphasis to statements, such as, "We aren't eating pizza again, are we?"

The most common type of tag question is utilitarian, meant for clarification or confirmation of a belief. A person might not remember a key fact as well as he or she would like, so he or she will ask, "That book about Cannery Row is by John Steinbeck, isn't it?" Someone might also obtain initial information about a subject with these sentence-ending fragments, as in, "You're a football fan, right?" or "You're not allergic to penicillin, are you?"

The tag question is structured in a handful of ways, particularly depending on the language being used. One common method in many languages, including English, is the balanced form. This follows either an affirmative or negating statement with a comma and a tag of an opposing nature. Some examples include, "She's a leader, isn't she?" or conversely, "We aren't eating pizza again, are we?"

Balanced is just one form the tag question can take. Often, an unbalanced form is used for particular types of emphasis. These tags are often pulled out in cases in which extreme emotion or accentuation is desired. For instance, "I'm an idiot, aren't I?" or "You're leaving, aren't you?"

In any case, the speaker often intones a tag question in a certain way, depending on the language and even the meaning being conveyed. For instance, "I'm an utter failure, aren't I?" is likely to have a tag question fragment that is spoken in a lower tone than the rest of the statement. Anger-laden statements, by contrast, may have a higher tone with the tag fragment for more emphasis on the suspicion: "You broke my video camera, didn't you?" At other times, leaving all linguistic rules behind, the entire sentence may be spoken in a uniform tone of voice.

Speakers employ tag questions to suit a myriad of interests. A person might just be signaling the desire for an immediate response at the end to the conversation: "We're done with this, right?" In many languages, attaching a mere "yes" or "no" as a tag is another way to accomplish this urgency. "We're gonna win this one, yes?" or "You're a good person, no?"

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