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question tags with the imperative, affirmative and negative

Surgeon

Gamil Wahba from Egypt writes:

Sometimes we say: Open the door, will you? Sometimes we say: Open the door, won't you? Are both correct?

Roger Woodham replies: more questions

question tags with the imperative

Yes, both are correct and there is very little difference in meaning between the two. There is perhaps a slight suggestion that you might be expecting the answer to be no, if you use the ...won't you? question tag.

By adding the tag to the imperative, open the door, you are softening the instruction and turning it into a request. Without it, it would sound very much like a command, so the tag has a similar effect to the addition of please.

…will you/won't you?

The following examples are all variations on the basic …will you/won't you? theme and all show roughly the same degree of politeness.

But note that the context of use is now the operating theatre and here the …won't you? tag would be inappropriate as the surgeon would never expect the answer to be no:

  • Hand me the scalpel, please.
  • Hand me the scalpel, will you please?
  • Hand me the scalpel, would you?
  • Hand me the scalpel, could you please?
  • Could you hand me the scalpel?
     

You can, of course, use …would you? and …could you? with your example, Gamil, in addition to …will you? and …won't you?, but note that with the imperative we cannot use …wouldn't you? or …couldn't you?.

Note in the following example, the first suggestion is much more tentative and less confident than the second:

  • Come back to my place for a coffee, won't you? ~ No, I'm sorry, I can't. I've got such an early start tomorrow that I have to go to bed now.

  • Let's go back to my place for coffee! ~ What a nice idea. A coffee and a brandy would round off that delicious meal nicely.
     

negative with affirmative and affirmative with negative

Leaving aside imperative structures, the normal rule that operates with tag questions is that you add a negative tag to a positive statement and a positive tag to a negative statement:

  • You would go to see Phil in America if I gave you the money, wouldn't you?
  • You couldn't help me sort out these overtime schedules, could you?

The normal expectation when you add a negative tag to a positive statement is that the answer will be yes. Similarly, when you add a positive tag to a negative statement, you expect the answer to be no:

  • They're such a lively bunch, aren't they? ~ Yes, they are. They've always got lots of energy.
  • You don't remember meeting my uncle, do you? ~ No, I'm sorry. I don't.
  • You haven't fed the goldfish, have you? ~ No, I haven't. You do it.
  • Excessive speed was the cause of the accident, don't you agree? ~ Yes, I do.

However, expectations are not always fulfilled:

  • You haven't fed the goldfish, have you? ~ Well, actually, I have. I fed them half an hour ago.
  • Excessive speed was the cause of the accident, don't you agree? ~ Well, I 'm not absolutely sure that I agree with you. He was driving fast, but not faster than the speed limit allows.
     

same way question tags

Here we are making a positive statement to make a guess and then adding the tag to ask if our assumption is correct. Study the following:

  • This is the final match of the season, is it? ~ Yes, that's right.
  • So you can run a mile in four minutes, can you?
  • She's been training to be an anaesthetist, has she?
  • So she's going to marry him, is she?
  • He was unfaithful straightaway, was he?
  • So you think she'll sue for divorce, do you?

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