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Tag Questions Are Fun to Teach, Aren't They?

November 29, 2012

Intonation as well as structure plays an important role in Tag Questions.

Do your students realize there’s more to Tag Questions than just knowing how to form them correctly? There is a slight difference in meaning when we use rising vs. falling intonation. A lot of textbooks don’t cover this point, but I think it’s important to teach our students how native speakers actually speak English, especially in informal situations that often call for Tag Questions. After discussing the purpose and intonation, there is also a mini-lesson that you can use to teach your students the structure of Tag Questions.

Purpose

Tag Questions are used when we are pretty certain that someone will agree with us. We use these questions for confirmation or emphasis.

For example:

  • That was a great movie, wasn’t it? (I really liked the movie. I can’t read my friend’s mind, but I’m pretty sure my friend will agree with me.)
  • The test will be difficult, won’t it? (My friend and I are in a tough class, and all the tests so far have been difficult. I’m quite sure my friend will agree with me.)

Intonation

1. Rising Intonation

voice goes up at the end of the question

This is the more familiar of the two Tag Question intonation styles, at least in Western Canada. We use it to indicate that we’re pretty sure that someone will agree with us. I like to tell my students that I’m about 90% sure in this case.

For example:

  • That was a great movie, wasn’t it? (= voice goes up) In this example, I really liked the movie, and I’m 90% sure my friend will agree with me. Maybe my friend usually prefers action movies, but even though this was a romantic comedy, it was a great story so my friend probably liked it.

2. Falling Intonation

voice goes down at the end of the question

We use it to indicate that we’re very sure that someone will agree with us. I like to tell my students that I’m about 95% sure in this case.

For example:

  • That was a great movie, wasn’t it? (= voice goes down) In this example, the movie was an action movie, which is my friend’s favorite type of movie. I loved the movie because it had a great plotline and lots of action, and I’m very sure my friend liked it.

Make sure you have your students repeat the questions after you to practise their intonation. When you practise Tag Questions in class (such as from the Structure lesson below), have them try both types of intonation.

Structure

Here’s how I usually present the formation of Tag Questions to my students:

1. Positive Vs. Negative Verbs

Tell your students that the Tag is always the opposite of the Main Verb. If the Main Verb is positive, the Tag will be negative. If the Main Verb is negative, the Tag will be positive.

  • He is funny, isn’t he?
  • She didn’t finish her homework, did she?

2. Verbs without Auxiliaries

Simple present verbs and simple past verbs form their Tags with do or did (in the same way that they use do, don’t, did, or didn’t for questions or negative sentences).

  • They speak English fluently, don’t they?
  • They don’t speak French fluently, do they?
  • We ran for hours in gym class, didn’t we?
  • We didn’t run for very long in gym class, did we?

*An exception is the verb To Be. This verb takes the opposite positive or negative form of the Main Verb, and the form depends on the subject.

  • She is tired, isn’t she?
  • You’re not finished, are you?
  • He was on time, wasn’t he?
  • They weren’t happy about the rain, were they?

3. Verbs with Auxiliaries

It’s easy to form Tag Questions when the Main Verb has an Auxiliary Verb (or “helping verb”). Just use the opposite positive or negative form of the Auxiliary Verb.

  • We won’t have time to finish, will we?
  • He will call me tonight, won’t he?
  • You haven’t seen this movie, have you?
  • She has been studying English for five years, hasn’t she?

4. Verbs with Modals

It’s also easy to form Tag Questions when the Main Verb has a Modal in front of it. Just use the opposite positive or negative form of the Modal.

  • You can swim, can’t you?
  • She couldn’t go to the party, could she?
  • He should study, shouldn’t he?
  • They shouldn’t drive after drinking, should they?

Be careful! Might and may are not used in Tag Questions, and must is also awkward. Tell your students to avoid using these Modals in Tag Questions.

For Modal expressions like have to or be able to, the normal rules of simple present verbs and the Be verb apply.

  • You have to study tonight, don’t you?
  • You don’t have to study tonight, do you?
  • She is able to sing, isn’t she?
  • She isn’t able to sing, is she?

5. Other Types of Tags

Remind your students that it’s also common to use words or phrases in place of Tag Questions, but the meaning is the same (used for confirmation or emphasis). Some common expressions are right, don’t you think, and the famous Canadian eh. Note that intonation is usually always rising in these cases.

  • That was a great movie, right?
  • That was a great movie, don’t you think?
  • That was a great movie, eh?

For more practice on Tag Questions, try Episode 2 from our Detective Series 1 section.

What about in your city or country? Are there slight differences in meaning related to differences in intonation, like in Western Canada? I’d love to hear what happens in other parts of the world. Feel free to leave a comment below and share with us!

The Tag Questions lesson is finished! That wasn’t so hard, was it?

Tanya

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Comments (10)

Cecylia M.(Teacher)

Thank you so much for taking the time to put this article together in such a teacher-friendly way. Much appreciated.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Cecylia,

Happy to help! Thanks for your kind words.

Tanya :)

Teoddie D.(Teacher)

Your presentation is very easy to understand. Thanks? Are there exemptions to tag question rules in terms of patterns or structures other than what you presented in this article? Thanks?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Teo,

Thanks for the compliment! The only other exception I can think of is that when I lived in New Zealand, they pronounced the 'eh' tag with a falling intonation (unlike Canada's rising intonation). I can't think of any other common exceptions at the moment. :)

Redeemer (Guest)

great material.
Easy to pass on.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment! Happy to hear it.

Paramita D.(Teacher)

Thanks so much! Very useful!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Paramita! I'm glad you found this post useful.

Silvia P.(Teacher)

I loved this content! Very useful!
Here in Brazil, when we want to confirm something or just emphasize, we place the expression "né" at the end of the statement, no matter if it is positive or negative.
The Brazilian way is easy, né?
Thanks a lot!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Silvia, I'm happy to hear you found this post useful! Thanks for sharing how to use tag questions in Brazil. I love hearing about other languages, and I agree that tag questions seem much easier in Portuguese!

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