Tag Questions: a Pronunciation Guide
There really isn’t anything more British than a tag question, ↘is there? In fact, English has an unusually wide range of tag questions, and they can be used with different intonation to generate various subtle meanings, which is what we’re going to study today. So let’s start then, ↗shall we?
A falling tag like “↘isn’t it?” “↘don’t you?” and “↘won’t they?” indicates that the speaker is not really asking, more telling the listener that their statement is correct. They’re very common at the end of any statement:
It’s raining, ↘isn’t it?
David can’t speak French, ↘can he?
Sarah came by car, ↘didn’t she?
Falling tags can be used to gently persuade the listener:
We’re going to Anne’s party, ↘aren’t we?
You won’t forget to do your homework, ↘will you?
You’ve brought the money, ↘haven’t you?
A rising tag is really a question, the listener is being urged to respond with their input, using the same examples, notice the difference in meaning:
It’s raining, ↗isn’t it?
David can’t speak French, ↗can he?
Sarah came by car, ↗didn’t she?
Positive Positive Tags
In falling and rising tags we saw opposite polarity for the statement and tag, so a positive statement has a negative tag and vice versa. A positive statement followed by a positive rising tag is also possible, and is often used to convey sarcasm:
You’ve done your homework, ↗have you?
You’re 18 years old, ↗are you?
He knows Donald Trump, ↗does he?
You’ve met someone new, ↗have you?
So this sword is from 900AD, ↗is it?
The film will be shown this evening, ↗will it?
An imperative statement can be followed by a rising tag question. Many modal verbs can be used here for varying levels of politeness:
Pass me the butter, ↗will you?
Pick me up in half an hour, ↗would you?
Open the window, ↗could you?
A suggestion can be followed by a rising tag using ‘shall’:
Go for a walk, ↗shall we?
I’ll make some biscuits, ↗shall I?
Let’s visit Italy this year, ↗shall we?
“innit” & General Tags
‘innit’ originally replaced the tag ‘isn’t it’ in some regional accents. However, more recently, many speakers, particularly younger speakers in London, use ‘innit’ for all ‘standard’ tag questions:
It’s raining, ↘innit?
Sarah came by car, ↘innit?
Not long to go now, ↘innit?
This kind of general tag is common in other languages, where one phrase or word will work in all instances, like in French “n’est pas?” and Spanish “verdad?”. It’s relatively new in widespread British English though, where traditionally question tags agreed grammatically with the main clause.
American vs British Usage
Tag questions are not as common in American English. A more general usage of ‘right?’ is often seen where a tag question may more likely appear in British English:
It’s raining, ↗right?
Sarah came by car, ↗right?
Not long to go now, ↗right?
Advice for Learners
Since tag questions are so common in British English, they form an important area of study for intermediate to proficient learners. There are three considerations in studying them:
i) Grammatical Construction: the choice of auxiliary verb (do, be, would etc.).
ii) Polarity: whether the tag is positive or negative.
iii) Intonation Pattern: the use of a falling or rising tone.
Native speakers use tags to convey some subtle meanings, particularly with ‘Positive Positive’ tags, making them also an important area of listening comprehension.
This article uses IPA (phonetic) symbols – you can learn them in the free Pronunciation Studio Starter Pack containing pronunciation notes and diagrams for each sound with audio, and an English IPA chart.