Tag questions, innit!

Tag questions or question tags are interrogative fragments (tags) added to statements making them into sort of questions. They tend to be used more in colloquial speech and informal writing than in formal writing, and can indicate politeness, emphasis, irony, confidence or lack of it, and uncertainty. Some are rhetorical and an answer is not expected, others invite a response.

In English they come in various forms, for example:

– I like coconut, don’t I?
– You’re tall, aren’t you?
– He’s handsome, isn’t he?
– She said she’d be here, didn’t she?
– It’ll rain tomorrow, won’t it?
– We were away, weren’t we?
– You’d gone, hadn’t you?
– They’ll be there, won’t they?

A simpler tag question used is some varieties of English in innit, a contraction of isn’t it, which could be used for all the examples above. Other English tags include right? and eh? – do you use any others?

Tag questions in Celtic languages can also have quite complex forms which depend on the verb and the subject in the main clause, particularly in Welsh.

T’eh braew jiu, nagh vel? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Hie ad dys y thie oast riyr, nagh jagh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Bee oo goll magh mairagh, nagh bee? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Tá sé go breá inniu, nach bhfuil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Chuaigh siad go dtí an teach tábhairne aréir, nagh ndeachaigh? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Beidh tú ag dul amach amárach, nach bheidh? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Scottish Gaelic
Tha i brèagha an diugh, nach eil? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Chaidh iad dhan taigh-òsta an-raoir, nagh deach? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Bidh thu a’ dol a-mach a-màireach, nach bi? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

Mae’n braf heddiw, on’d ydy? (It’s fine today, isn’t it?)
Mi aethon nhw nhw’n mynd i’r dafarn neithiwr, on’d wnaethon? (They went to the pub last night, didn’t they?)
Fyddet ti’n mynd allan yfory, on’ fyddet? (You’ll go out tomorrow, won’t you?)

I’m not sure about how tag questions work in Breton and Cornish.

In other languages things can be simpler:

– Czech: že?
– French: n’est-ce pas? non?
– German: nicht wahr? nicht? oder?
– Italian: no? vero? (positive), non è vero? (negative)
– Polish: prawda? (positive), nieprawdaż? (negative)
– Russian: да? (da?)
– Spanish: ¿no? ¿verdad?

Can you provide other examples?

15 thoughts on “Tag questions, innit!

  1. (Netherlands) Dutch uses hè?: Mooi hè? “Pretty, isn’t it?” “Jij was er gisteren niet hè?” “You weren’t there yesterday, were you?”, etc. The more formal version nietwaar? is equivalent to German nicht wahr?, but, unlike hè? can only be used as a tag to positive statements. The same goes for niet?, which is a more regional variety.

    Another tag word is toch?, which differers from hè? in that it specifically asks for confirmation of something of which the speaker isn’t entirely sure; comparable to English “right?”: Jij hield van aardappelen, toch? “You said you like potatoes, right?”

  2. In Hungarian we normally just use the same as the Spanish, “no?”, which in Hungarian is “nem?” We also use “ugye” as a tag question.
    E.g.: Holnap esni fog, nem? (It will rain tomorrow, won’t it?)
    Holnap esni fog, ugye? (It will rain tomorrow, won’t it?)

  3. In my area of central Pennsylvania (Tyrone), which combines an old German/Pennsylvania Dutch substratum with an old Scots-Irish one, there is a peculiar local speech “tic” among the older speakers. Here are some examples:

    – It’s fine out today, so it is.
    – It’ll be a grand picnic, so it will.
    – He had all his relatives up to visit, so he did.
    – They worked hard all their lives, so they did.

    This phrase structure is pervasive among some older speakers, enough that outsiders notice it, though I’m not sure the speakers do. I’ve heard various genders and tenses, but never the interrogative. I think I’ve heard negatives, but won’t swear to it. Only forms of “to be” and “to do” seem to be used.

    This is a place where some folk still believe in ghosts (Celts), or witches and hexerei and The Long Lost Friend as a source of white magic (Germans). (“He can take off” [no object] means “He can lay his hands on someone and remove pain”) My property surrounds a cemetery and some folk won’t visit after dark (Celts).

    We once heard people debating in a streamside parking area after someone hit (but did not kill) a snake with a car. “I, Jacob Holtz, am not killing this snake.” “I, Isaac Stolzfus, am not killing this snake.” They were announcing this to the snake’s mate in the brush so that she would not blame them for the death of her partner. (My Lithuanian-descent husband said “I, David Zincavage, am killing this snake” and put it out of its misery.) Magic in the modern world.

  4. The only examples of Breton tag questions I could find are always negative and are positively conducive.

    Ur meus lipous eo ar c’hrampouezh, n’int ket?
    Crêpes are a tasty meal, aren’t they?

    Negative conducive tags in Breton make use of the invariant particle ‘geo’ – adverb used as an affirmative response to a negative question (cf. French si, German doch) and use of the general all purpose negative polarity tag ‘neketa’ like French n’est-ce pas.

    N’ eo ket ur vicher gwall stard, geo?
    It’s not a very difficult occupation, is it?

    Te a skoazello, neketa?
    You’ll help, won’t you?

  5. Let’s not forget that Brazilians end up almost every sentence with não é? Funny enough, the answer always is é, é! , and never do you understand if it is supposed to mean yes or no 😉

    As for Italian, I find it misleading to talk about positive and negative tags: all the expressions mentioned in the text are interchangeable.

  6. Your Polish examples are kind of old fashioned, the most common tag in everyday usage is nie? (no?)

  7. @Karen Myers
    Yes – the “so it is” (etc.) tag is very common in Donegal and the neighbouring counties of Northern Ireland.

    In the English spoken in Mid Wales (and maybe other parts), it is quite common to hear a tag statement (as opposed to a tag question) that repeats the subject and auxiliary verb in the sentence (or uses ‘to do’, where there is no auxiliary in the original statement):

    “I’m knackered, I am.”
    “She’s gone out, she has.”
    “He loves her, he does.”

  8. POLISH: I second Michael Farris’s comment about “nie” being the common everyday tag but must say that I have frequently heard “prawda?” as well.

    GERMAN: In 1973 I worked on a farm in Bavaria about 40 km northeast of Munich. I couldn’t understand a word of Bayrisch, but constantly heard my employers and other locals ending sentences with “ge?,” apparently an abbreviated form of “gelt,” from the verb “gelten,” which in this sense would mean “to be valid.” My 1974 Wahrig Deutsches Woerterbuch gives “nicht wahr?” and “ja?” as definitions of “gelt.”

  9. When I was in Konstanz in Baden-Württemberg, I also noticed everyone ending sentences with “ge?”. They told me it was spelled “gell”. LEO confirms the meaning “right” for both “gell” and “gelt”.

  10. I seem to hear “na fe” put on the end of Welsh and sometimes the English of Welsh speakers in South-west Wales. Am I right? (My Welsh is very limited).

  11. In Russian, most of your questions are formed with what often seems like a double negative.
    Я не знаю ничего – I do not know anything. Literally translates as I do not know nothing.
    Then of course is the fabulous да нет, which is sort of a maybe, yes, well no, kind of catch all answer which doesn’t to English speakers sound like an answer at all!
    And lastly I would add this great suffix не так ли, as a sort of affirmative of a question you weren’t sure of answer.
    Of course in Russian it seemed odd when I first started that intonation is all, and an affirmative statement is merely a question if said differently.
    It is all fascinating.

  12. As a Polish speaker, I wouldn’t call prawda? ‘old-fashioned’; I think there’s a difference in register in comparison with nie? — in more formal contexts, when speaking to superiors the latter could sound impolite and careless.

    On the other hand, nieprawdaż? is outdated and using it too often you might come off as pretentious.

    Furthermore, syntactically speaking those three are fully interchangeable in Polish (there’s no grammatical polarity contrast like in English is it vs isn’t it).

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