Question tags

Does she? Won’t they? Shall we? Mustn’t he?



It is said that English is one of the easiest languages to speak at a very basic level, but one of the hardest to master. So what makes it easy in the early stages? I would suggest two reasons:

1. The fact that the verbs conjugate so simply:


Regular verbs are über-simple:

To play: play, plays, played, and playing.

That’s all there is.


Irregular verbs are not much worse. Even the very irregular ones, such as

To be: am, are, is, was, were, been

This is unbelievably simple in comparison with the entire A4 page’s worth of verb tables that must/should/may be learnt in most other European languages.


2. The second reason is that English is everywhere, and everyone wants to learn it, for a multitude of motives. We Brits must grudgingly admit that this is due much more to the global influence of the USA than little old UK.


And what makes English so difficult to master?

Where do I start?!

OK, I’ll start here: Question tags.


It must be so difficult for students of English to get these right, the little extra bits that tag on to the end of a statement to make it into a question:

It’s time to go home, isn’t it?

You don’t play golf, do you?


To form a question tag, the usual pattern is to take the main verb of the sentence, and make it negative if it is in the positive form, or vice versa, while inverting the verb and the personal pronoun. Once this formula has been mastered, the next hurdle is to make sure the tone of voice is correct. Does your voice rise in a questioning tone, or fall, as if assuming agreement? Get the tone wrong and it can alter the meaning, or sound ridiculous!

And how many years of practice would be required to (a) notice and (b) correctly reproduce and use the following subtlety?

You’re off on your holidays next week, are you?

You’re off on your holidays next week, aren’t you?



There is good news for us, dear foreign language learners!

These question tags are so much easier in Spanish, French, German, Italian…

While it might take a lifetime to master the English ones, in other languages they usually consist of a single, very easy word or invariable short phrase, and can be learnt toot sweet.


Spanish:

…¿no? / …¿verdad? / …¿vale?


Por ejemplo:

Va a llover, ¿no? It’s going to rain, isn’t it?

Mantengámonos en contacto, ¿vale? Let’s stay in touch, OK?

Sí, ¿no? It is, isn’t it? (Literally: Yes, no?)


French:

… n’est-ce pas? / …non?


Par exemple:

Ils viennent avec nous, n'est-ce pas ? They’re coming with us, aren’t they?

Vous préférez voyager par le train, non ? You prefer travelling by train, don’t you?


These can both be replaced by the classic French ‘hein?’ which translates as the American ‘huh?’ – the ubiquitous question tag that serves every purpose. Do I dare mention the modern British colloquial equivalent: ‘innit?’


German:

…nicht wahr? / …oder? / …gell?


Dein Flug fährt morgen früh ab, oder? Your flight’s tomorrow morning, isn’t it?

Das Abendessen ist fast fertig, nicht wahr? Dinner’s almost ready, right?

Schö‘ gsi, gell? That was nice, wasn’t it (Swiss dialect!)


This third one is much more colloquial, but in very frequent use, especially in Switzerland and southern Germany.



In all three of these languages there are sometimes other, more elaborate ways of making a statement into a question, but these, above, are really all you need for most purposes.

Try to find opportunities to use them. They are good ways to keep things flowing, in that they tend to invite a response from your conversational partner. They will make you sound polite and humble – seeking agreement or assent to something that you have just suggested or affirmed, and at the same time confident – mimicking one of the traits of the native speaker. Win-win.




Andrew Wenger has spent his whole life attempting to sound more like a native speaker in the languages he has tried to learn. Identifying shortcuts like the ones mentioned in this post are a small step in the direction of finding that holy grail.

Why not join us for a trail lesson in one of these languages. No one is promising that you will pass for a native speaker “in three months” but you will gain insight and be set on the right path to confidence and competence, and meet some other like-minded people as you go.

Contact us here for more information

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