Question tags

(Rules for using question tags in English)

Table of contents – question tags

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Explanation question tags
  2. Use of question tags
  3. Form of question tags
  4. Further explanations and exercises

What are question tags?

In general, question tags (also called tag questions or question tails) are used to elicit confirmation or affirmation for a statement from the person one is talking to. This grammatical feature can sometimes provoke problems (especially for learners of English as a foreign language) as the question tag always has to be adapted to the previous part of the statement. This means it has to be grammatically in accordance with it. It can be different in other languages when only generic question tags are used. Compare the following:

Examples in English

Some examples of question tags in the English language are:

Positive tag Negative tag
do they? don’t they?
has she? hasn’t she?
are you? aren’t you?
will it? won’t it?
can we? can’t we?

Examples in other languages

And here some examples taken from other languages. They are not very common in English:

  • … or?
  • … no?
  • … true?

How are question tags used?

Question tags always appear at the end of the sentence and refer to the verb used in the clause before as well as the subject (which is a noun or a personal pronoun in most cases) of the corresponding statement. Basically, the following rule applies: In positive sentences a negative question tag is needed and in negative ones a positive. However, there may be other combinations depending on meaning and pronunciation. Be aware that question tags are only common in spoken language.

  • Some examples of positive sentences; respectively, a negative tag question is used. A comma is always used for separation:
    • You are hungry, aren’t you?
    • He is from Scotland, isn’t he?
    • She plays the piano, doesn’t she?
    • They have good connections to that company, don’t they?
  • Examples of negative sentences; here an affirmed tag question is used:
    • She isn’t very happy about her new job, is she?
    • He usually cannot visit you on weekends, can he?
    • We are not allowed to leave, are we?
  • If the statement has a negative meaning, a positive question tag is used. Examples:
    • “Your neighbors never use their car, do they?
    • “She never came back again, did she?

How are question tags formed in a sentence?

When it comes to the form of question tags, you need to pay attention that a personal pronoun (‘he, she, it, we’, etc.) instead of a noun is used in almost every case. It has to refer to the subject of the sentence which is often a noun or the same personal pronoun. Similarly, the tense in the question tag cannot differ from the tense in the statement. The following points demonstrate the forming in detail:

  1. If an auxiliary verb (‘be, have, do’, etc.) or a modal verb (‘must, can, would’, etc.) appears in the statement, it has to be used in the tag question too. The main verb is not mentioned anymore:
    • The house you bought was built in 2003, wasn’t it?
      • The personal pronoun ‘it’ in the tag refers to the subjectthe house’ of the corresponding sentence.
    • We have got a beautiful garden, haven’t we?
      • Here the personal pronoun ‘we’ is used in the tag question as well as in the subject.
    • The instructions must be followed, mustn’t they?
      • Be careful:must not’ has a special meaning and is not usually the negative version of ‘must’. Compare the difference in the use of ‘must & mustn’t’.
  2. If there is only a main verb present in the statement and no auxiliary verb, the question tag is formed with ‘do’ (the tense has to be the same):
    • “Ingrid likes to do a lot of sports, doesn’t she?
      • present simple
    • “We spent too much money yesterday, didn’t we?
      • past simple
  3. If the statement is a request, ‘will’ or ‘would’ are usually employed:
    • Pass me the sugar, would you?
    • Don’t be late, will you?
  4. If the request includes ‘let’s’, ‘shall’ is the suitable question tag:
    • Let’s go shopping, shall we?
  5. Whenever ‘there is, there are, there were’ for showing that something exists is used, ‘there’ needs to be applied in the question tag too:
    • There weren’t a lot of things left at the sale, were there?
  6. Attention: If the statement includes the personal pronoun for the first person, the question tag is formed with “… aren’t I?”. In fact, this is against the general grammar rules as it actually needs to be “… am I not?”. However, in this form, that means not shortened, it is only used when something needs to be emphasized in particular. Therefore, the following version is more common:
    • I’m very lazy, aren’t I?

Further explanations related to ‘tag questions’

The following exercises and explanations relate to the topic ‘rules for using question tags in English’ and could also be interesting: