Using conversation tags in English

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What is a conversation tag?Conversation tags (also called tag questions or question tags) are common structures used in spoken English.

An example of a question tag is: ‘You like studying English, don’t you?’

The first part of a question tag sentence is the statement (‘You like studying English’) followed by the question form (‘don’t you?’)

It is important to note that question tags are generally not questions at all – they are used for the following purposes:

1. To confirm information you think you know (e.g. ‘Your birthday is in May, isn’t it?’ = I think your birthday is in May, but can you confirm that)

2. To act as a conversation starter (e.g. ‘You bought their new album, didn’t you? What did you think of it?’)

3. To ask for agreement with something (e.g. ‘You believe me, don’t you?’)

When conversation tags are used as real questions, we often begin with the negative. Compare:

Not a real questionA real question
It’s a lovely day, isn’t it?You’ve been here before, haven’t you?‘You haven’t seen my keys, have you?”You don’t know where the bank is, do you?’

Another important difference between question tags used as real questions versus question tags that are not real questions is the sound of your voice.

For example:

REAL QUESTION: You haven’t seen my keys, have you? (the tag has a rising intonation – the sound of your voice goes up)

NOT A REAL QUESTION: It was an exciting game, wasn’t it? (the tag has a falling intonation – the sound of your voice goes down)

Forming conversation tags

The ‘tag’ part of the structure comes from copying the auxiliary verb in the main statement. For example: You haven’t seen my keys, have you? You are from New Zealand, aren’t you?

If there is no auxiliary verb, then the verb ‘do’ is used: You like ice cream, don’t you? The table below shows the formation of most question tags.

SubjectAuxiliary verbMain verb(Additional info) + commaAuxiliaryMatch subjectQuestion mark
Theyhavemissedthe bus,haven’tthey?
Theyhavea car,don’tthey?
Shewillcometo the party,won’tshe?
The doctorshouldbe ableto help,shouldn’tshe?

Question tags – Exceptions Some question tags are unique in that they don’t fit into the table above. Here are some of the more unusual tags that are exceptions to the rules:

  • Let’s go, shall we?
  • I am late, aren’t I?
  • Nobody telephoned you this morning, did they? (tag is positive when statement has ‘nobody’, ‘nothing’)

Be careful when answering a tag question!

Consider the following:

A: London isn’t in Spain, is it? B: Yes, you’re right. (meaning ‘I agree with what you said’) Incorrect You cannot say this

A: London isn’t in Spain, is it. B: No, you’re right. (Meaning ‘London is not in Spain’) Correct This is correct

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