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Ask about English


- Friendly and informal addresses


- Tips for translators


- Forming questions


- UK vs USA


- Objective tone


- Fluency


- Question tags

a beach in the tropics
The beaches here are lovely, aren't they?

A question from Welma from the Phillipines:
I just moved to the UK two months ago. I've heard a lot of people using these words: 'can you?', 'don't we?', 'did we?', 'are we?', 'aren't we?'

For example, my husband will say: "We liked it, didn't we?"

My question is when should I use and not use these words? - question tags


Ask about English

Gareth Rees:
Thanks for this question, Welma. The UK is very different to the Philippines, isn't it?
The winter in the UK is cold, isn't it? In those sentences 'isn't it' is an example of what we call a question tag. And that is the subject of your question. As you said Welma, these tags are very common in spoken English. So, when do we use tags and why?

Well, question tags are commonly used in conversation, and they make the listener speak. They encourage the listener to comment on what the speaker has just said. Notice how this following conversation builds with question tags.

"Spain is a lovely country, isn't it?"
"Yes, I think it is. I love the beaches, don't you?"
"Oh yes, I often go to Spain on holiday, or Turkey. Turkey's a lovely place, isn't it?"

And so on.

We often use these question tags when we want to see if someone agrees with us, or if our idea is correct.

"You live on the tenth floor, don't you?" I think, but I'm not sure if I remembered correctly that the person lived on the tenth floor. Again:

"You live on the tenth floor, don't you?"

In a lot of conversation, these tags are not heavily stressed, so the intonation is often a gentle falling intonation.

"It's a lovely day, isn't it?"
"You don't like tomatoes, do you?"

However, if you give the question tag a strong and rising intonation, then you show either surprise or that you are really asking a question.

"You can use a computer, can't you?"
"You're from England, aren't you?"

So, you should probably use questions tags a lot when you are chatting with friends or making polite conversation with strangers. If you combine a tag with a comment about the weather you are sure to start up a conversation. In the summer, just say, "It's hot today, isn't it?" And someone will reply. Or, on a rainy winter's day, say "It's been an awful day today, hasn't it?" And certainly someone will reply to your tag.

Well, that's enough for now, isn't it?

Gareth Rees has been an English language teacher and teacher trainer for over 10 years. He is currently a lecturer at London Metropolitan University and his first course book for English Language learners is due to be published in the near future.


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