TES 28 Tag questions One of the glories of English grammar is the system of tag questions - an important resource for native speakers, and a nightmare for foreigners. Here are some examples: It's going to rain soon, isn't it? I've already told you five times, haven't I? The train leaves at seven, doesn't it? Give me a hand, would you? A tag question is a tiny cut-down question which is tagged on to a main clause which in itself is a statement or a request. They're glorious because they're complicated in a very regular way. In French, the tag question is always n'est-ce pas (literally: 'isn't it?') but in English its form varies according to the main clause: isn't it? after It's ... haven't I? after I've ... It's easy to see what's going on here, but not quite so easy with the next two: doesn't it? after The train leaves ... would you? after Give ... Once you know what the main clause is, you can nearly always work out what the tag question is going to be. As a native speaker you do this automatically, but foreigners have to learn the rules. What are tag questions for? Basically they modify a statement or request by inviting the hearer to sign up to it. For example, if Mary says to John: "The party is on Saturday" she is simply telling him a fact; but when she adds "isn't it?" she's asking him to share responsibility for this fact. She can involve him in different ways according to whether she uses isn't or is: The party's on Saturday, isn't it? The party's on Saturday, is it? She can also achieve very different effects by rising and falling intonation on isn't it? The effects of tag questions are very subtle and very important in a conversation, where they can turn a monologue into genuine interaction. But it's not just conversation that benefits from them - they're all over the place in speech used by everyone from politicians to school teachers. They certainly deserve a place in the syllabus for the Speaking and Listening strand. Formal writing has virtually no tag questions. This is partly because formal writing isn't interactive so tag questions lose their point; but there are plenty of situations where formal writing aims to persuade or to invoke shared facts and values. So if we want to achieve the same effects in writing, how do we do it? There's no simple answer, but we do have some useful tools which budding writers should know about - words like surely, presumably, obviously, of course, as we all know, and (of course) punctuation: There are surely no tag questions in formal writing? Of course, there are no tag questions in formal writing. As we all know, there are no tag questions in formal writing. Once again, an easily overlooked part of language proves a handy starting-point for exploring the subtleties of human communication … don’t you think?
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