English Inversion #2: Question Tags

Melania Trump

How do you say something or make a statement in your language? What is the word order: which word do you say first, second, third, etc? Here are two examples of common English word order:  

Melania Trump was born in Slovenia. 

→  Subject + verb 

She speaks more than five languages.

→  Subject + verb 

How do you ask questions in your language? What is the word order: which part of speech do you say first, second, third, etc? Here are three examples of common English word order in questions:

♦ Was Melania Trump born in Slovenia?        →  Verb + subject 

♦ Where was Melania Trump born?                →  Question word + verb + subject 

♦ How many languages does she speak?        →  Question words + verb + subject

When we change the word order from subject + verb to verb + subject, we call this Inversion. You may be used to questions like those above, but we can also add a little question at the end of a statement.

Sometimes, when we ask questions, we are checking information or making conversation, often both. Imagine that you are meeting Melania Trump. You could say:

You were born in Slovenia, weren’t you     → subject + verb, … verb + subject

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 You were born in Slovenia, weren’t you?

When we are checking information, we can make a statement and then add a Question Tag at the end. We say what we believe is true and then check that we are correct. How do you ask this in your language? Many languages, like French and Hindi, have the same tag for all statements, with the meaning isn’t that so? We have a few more tags in English. They won’t take long to learn.

Using Question Tags is a convenient way to make conversation and / or check information. Imagine that you are introduced to someone and you make a statement like, ‘You travel a lot’. What do you expect the other person to say? He or she will probably just look at you, perhaps say, ‘yes’. End of conversation.

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You travel a lot, don’t you?

However, you could say, ‘You travel a lot, don’t you?’ Now you have engaged the other person in a friendly way and you can expect a response. ‘Yes, I do. It’s part of my job.’ The conversation continues. 

We use Question Tags constantly in everyday life: checking timetables, schedules, meetings, arrangements, and asking for something when we don’t want to ask a direct question:

∗ Wife: You won’t be late for the school concert, will you?
Husband: Of course not! You don’t expect me to wear a suit, do you?

∗ Ka-men: Fernandas coming to the party tonight, isn’t she?
Patricia: Yes, of course. She’s bringing the music.

∗ John: The conference starts at 8:00 am on Monday, doesn’t it?
Sarah: Yes, it does. All the sales staff are coming, aren’t they?
John: Well, they don’t have to. It’s up to them.
Sarah: You can come to the conference, can’t you? I really need your input. We’ve been working on this report for weeks. I think that we should present it together, don’t you?

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You can come to the meeting can’t you?

We add Question Tags to the end of statements to turn them into questions. The statement is the easy part but there are a few things to remember about how to form the tag:  

♦ If the statement is positive, the tag is a negative contraction :

The conference starts at 8:00 am on Monday, doesn’t it?

♦ If the statement is negative, the tag is positive:

You won’t be late for the school concert, will you?

♦ The Question Tag is always an auxiliary verb with the same tense as the statement:

Do & does with Present Simple 

The conference starts at 8:00 am on Monday, doesn’t it?

You don’t expect me to wear a suit, do you?

Am, is & are with Present Simple

Im the lead actor aren’t I (Not amn’t I – simply because it sounds so bad.)

Im not a vampire, am I?

Edward isn’t a vampire, is he?

Vampires aren’t real, are they?

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Fernanda is really enjoying herself, isn’t she?

Did with Past Simple

You didn’t forget to bring the beer, did you?     
Fernanda organised the party music, didn’t she?

Was & were with Past Simple

Fernanda wasn’t late, was she?

You were there, weren’t you?

Has, have & had with Perfect Tenses

You haven’t forgotten the food, have you?

Shes organised the party music, hasn’t she?

Shed been trying for months to get the venue, hadn’t she?

Am, is & are with Present Continuous

They‘re  failing the course, aren’t they?

Im not studying enough, am I?

Fernanda is really enjoying herself, isn’t she?

Was & were with Past Continuous

Fernanda was really enjoying herself, wasn’t she?

The students were singing and dancing all night, weren’t they?

Will with all Future Tenses

You won’t forget the beer, will you?

Youll be bringing the music, won’t you?

She will have finished her test by now, won’t she?

They will have been drinking for hours, won’t they?

Modals with every verb                             

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Lorenzo can swim, can’t he?!

We can’t smoke here, can we?

Lorenzo can swim, can’t he?

You shouldn’t have used my computer, should you?

I wouldn’t have if I had my own, would I?

You could have asked me, couldn’t you?

Dogs must be trained, mustn’t they?

Everybody, Somebody, Nobody

Everybody is coming to the party, aren’t they?*

Somebody knows the address, don’t they?*

**Nobody has forgotten the date, have they?*

*Everybody, somebody and nobody are all singular subjects and usually take singular verbs. However, in English we don’t have a neutral singular pronoun, so in Question Tags, we use they with a plural verb.

**Nobody is negative (no + body) so it takes a positive tag. Statements with these negatives also use positive tags: no, nothing and neither.

Nothing could be done to save the house, could it?

Neither of us knew about the insurance, did we?

I have no choice, do I?

♦  The subject in all Question Tags is a pronoun:

Lorenzo can swim, can’t he?

Dogs must be trained, mustn’t they?

♦ Note that the positive tag is not a contraction. The negative tag is always a contraction, unless you want to sound formal. If you do, you will need to change the word order:

We are now going to review our legal obligations, are we not?

Im the boss, am I not? 

Surely, they can help us, can they not?

* For practice exercises, click here.

* To learn more about Inversion, click here.

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This entry was posted in Advanced (Level 6+), Cambridge, Grammar, Intermediate (Level 4), Upper Intermediate (Level 5). Bookmark the permalink.

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