Question Tags in English: Form, Function and Common Mistakes

Question Tags. Definition and Use

What are Question Tags in English?

Question Tags are short question phrases that are added to the end of statements to turn them into questions. They are often used to check information that we think we know to be true. Question tags are also often seen as a sign of politeness and interest in the listener’s opinion. Question tags consist of an auxiliary verb (e.g. be or have) and a pronoun that repeats the subject of the main clause. It’s important to know which auxiliary verb to use and whether the tag should be positive or negative (also called the “tail”). For example:

  • She’s a doctor, isn’t she?
  • He isn’t here, is he?

The form of the question tag depends on the tense and aspect of the main clause. If there is an auxiliary verb in the main clause, we use that to form the question tag. If there is no auxiliary verb (in the Present Simple and Past Simple), we use do/does/did (just like for a regular question). There is one exception: the question tag after I am is aren’t I. For example:

  • I’m in charge of the food, aren’t I?

Let’s look in more detail at why question tags are used and what the rules are in English.

What are Question Tags Used For?

Question tags are used to turn statements into questions that require a response or confirmation. They can also express doubt, interest, surprise, protest, or other emotions. For example:

  • You like pizza, don’t you? – invites confirmation
  • She can’t drive, can she? – expresses doubt
  • It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it? – expresses interest
  • He didn’t say that, did he? – expresses surprise
  • You’re not leaving, are you? – expresses protest

The most common uses are:

  • Confirming information: To check if you have understood information correctly or if something is known to the listener:

    • The meeting is at 5 p.m., isn’t it?
  • Expressing assumption: When you are quite sure about something but want to make certain:

    • You’ve been to Paris, haven’t you?
  • Inviting discussion: To encourage another person to share their opinion or join the conversation:

    • It’s a bit pricey here, isn’t it?

Main Rules for Forming Question Tags

1. If the main clause is positive, the question tag should be negative. For example:

  • You are coming, aren’t you?

For better understanding, see the table below.

Positive Statement with Negative Question Tag

Verb/TensePositive StatementNegative “Question Tag”
Present SimpleShe likes apples.doesn’t she?
Past SimpleHe went home.did he?
Present ContinuousThey are working hard.aren’t they?
Past ContinuousShe was sleeping.wasn’t she?
Present PerfectThey have finished.haven’t they?
Past PerfectShe had arrived.hadn’t she?
To be (Present)He is happy.isn’t he?
To be (Past)They were late.weren’t they?
Future (will)They will come soon.won’t they?
Future (going to)She is going to leave.isn’t she?
Modal verbsYou can swim.can’t you?
He must leave now.mustn’t he?
They will come soon.won’t they?

2. If the main clause is negative, the question tag should be positive. For example:

  • He isn’t here, is he?

Also remember the table for this rule:

Negative Statement with Positive Question Tag

Verb/TenseNegative StatementPositive “Question Tag”
Present SimpleShe doesn’t like apples.does she?
Past SimpleHe didn’t go home.did he?
Present ContinuousThey aren’t working hard.are they?
Past ContinuousShe wasn’t sleeping.was she?
Present PerfectThey haven’t finished.have they?
Past PerfectShe hadn’t arrived.had she?
To be (Present)He isn’t he?
To be (Past)They weren’t late.were they?
Future (will)They won’t come soon.will they?
Future (going to)She isn’t going to she?
Modal verbsYou can’t swim.can you?
He mustn’t leave now.must he?
They won’t come soon.will they?

3. The auxiliary verb in the question tag should match the main verb in the statement. For example:

  • She can speak French, can’t she?

4. If there is no auxiliary verb in the main clause, use the verb “do” in the appropriate form. For example:

  • They went to the park, didn’t they?

5. The pronoun in the question tag matches the subject of the main clause. For example:

  • Jenny likes ice cream, doesn’t she?

6. If the main clause is an imperative, “will you” is commonly used for a positive question tag:

  • Open the window, will you?

7. For a negative meaning, “would you” is more common:

  • Don’t be late, would you?

Examples of using Question Tag

StatementQuestion Tag
She is happy.isn’t she?
They went to the party.didn’t they?
You can swim.can’t you?
He is coming.isn’t he?
They were late.weren’t they?
She can dance.can’t she?
You like chocolate.don’t you?
He didn’t finish his homework.did he?
You enjoyed the movie.didn’t you?
She’s from Spain.isn’t she?
You’re not busy.are you?
It’s quite chilly outside.isn’t it?
This coffee is delicious.isn’t it?
We’re having a great time.aren’t we?

Common Mistakes with Question Tags

Mismatching tenses:

  • Incorrect: He can help me, isn’t he?
  • Correct: He can help me, can’t he?

Since the main clause uses “can” (modal verb), the question tag should also contain “can.”

Using the wrong pronoun:

  • Incorrect: Sally and you like the movie, doesn’t you?
  • Correct: Sally and you like the movie, don’t you?

The question tag should match the subject “you” which requires “don’t.”

Incorrect use with “to be” in the past tense:

  • Incorrect: They were at the party, weren’t they?
  • Correct: They were at the party, were they?

If the main clause is already negative, the question tag should be positive.

Forgetting inversion in tag questions:

  • Incorrect: He must finish the task, must he not?
  • Correct: He must finish the task, mustn’t he?

In English, the shorter inverted form of the question tag is usually more acceptable and conversational.

Incorrect use with “I am”:

  • Incorrect: I’m the fastest runner, amn’t I?
  • Correct: I’m the fastest runner, aren’t I?

The exception to the rule states that despite a positive “I am,” the negative “aren’t I?” is used in the question tag.

Correcting these common mistakes will help you properly form question tags in English. Remember to switch positive and negative forms, match the auxiliary verb and grammatical person of the subject, and use the right tense. Pay attention to these aspects when speaking English, and your language skills will noticeably improve.

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