You can form a question in English quite easily – usually by using the simple formula of:
Question word + auxiliary verb + subject + main verb
“When does your train arrive?”
“When” is the question verb. “Does” is the auxiliary verb. “Train” is the subject and “arrive” is the main verb.
You can put together simple or complex questions by using question words such as “who”, “what”, “where”, “why” and “when”.
But there’s also a special form of questions that are put together in a different way. These are call question tags – so let’s find out what they are!
What are question tags?
Unlike the usual form of questions, question tags do not use typical question words, as in the example above.
Instead, they usually follow the structure below:
Main statement + tag statement
“The buses are quite late these days, aren’t they?”
In this example, the first part “the buses are quite late these days” seems like a statement describing a fact – rather than a question. But the second part of the sentence, “aren’t they?” is the tag – and this part changes it from an ordinary statement into a question.
You can turn any statement into a question in this way.
How you form a question tag will depend on the verb being used in your main statement.
If you are using an auxiliary verb (“be” or “have”) and another verb, then the question tag will use the same auxiliary verb.
“You have eaten breakfast, haven’t you?”
“The house is feeling cold, isn’t it?”
If there is no auxiliary verb, then the tag uses the verb “do”.
“The cat ate its food, didn’t it?”
And if your statement uses a modal verb such as “could”, “should” or “would”, then the tag uses the same modal verb.
“I shouldn’t really complain about my problems, should I?”
Positive and negative question tags
You can also use question tags to express something in a negative way.
“She isn’t going to come to the party, is she?”
A useful point to note is that the tag takes the opposite form of the main statement. So if your statement is positive, the tag will be in the negative form. And if your statement is negative, the tag is positive.
A bit confusing but very important!
Why use question tags?
Lastly, why use tags at all when you could simply ask a question?
“You aren’t going to eat that, are you?” could also be phrased “Are you going to eat that?”
The difference is that question tags are used more in spoken English than in written, and they are usually used to continue the conversation. They can often be seen as a softer and less aggressive way to ask a question, or a good way to start a conversation with someone.
Question tags are usually used in speaking, so the best way to practise is by having lots of little conversations!
If you’ve got a practice partner, start a conversation with one, and experiment with all the different ways to form tags.