As a child, a friend chided me once for ending every sentence with “don’t you think?” It was a habit I had picked up from my mother, who often spoke that way. Today, I recoil at the overuse of tag questions. By tag questions, I refer to those contracted verb phrases that contrast with the statement of the main clause that people often append to the ends of their sentences. Other examples include, “It’s a nice day today, Isn’t it?” “It would be better to meet her at the airport, don’t you think?” or “You will send me the report before Friday, right?”
Not all tag questions offend. Some tag questions represent a speaker’s effort to negotiate meaning at instances where misunderstanding has occurred. Rather, when I say tag questions bother me, I have another kind of tag question in mind.
We can understand why some tag questions grate the nerves by considering some basic principles of the branch of linguistics called pragmatics — the study of how people use language. The features I will discuss come from the subfield of pragmatics called conversation analysis.
Conversation analysis stems from the work of UCLA sociology professor Emanuel Schegloff and his colleagues, Harvey Sacks and Gail Jefferson.
Speakers organize their talk in ordered sequences that linguists label adjacency pairs. Examples of adjacency pairs include invocations (Jude! / What?), requests (Can I ask you a question? / sure), Invitations (Would you like to …? / I’d love to), etc. As you can see from these examples some utterances occur in the first part and others in the second part. Linguists label these first-pair parts FPPs and second-pair parts SPPs, respectively.
Of course, conversation does not always occur in neat couplets of binary turns. Therefore, people modify these pairs with expansions. Expansions occur as adumbrations before, between, or after the adjacency pair. Tag questions are one such expansion.
In their unmarked position, tag questions would occur as post-expansions after the SPP — a type of expansion that serves the function of repair, which means clarification or confirmation in linguistics jargon, as in the following example:
Speaker A: “I’m driving Sarah to the movie tonight.”
Speaker B: “You let your brother borrow your car tonight, didn’t you?“
In this example, speaker B is confused because speaker A has provided two pieces of information that conflict. The tag question solicits clarification. Few people object to such innocuous tags, and they serve an indispensable function in conversation.
But tag questions don’t always repair understanding; they sometimes impose it. To understand this, we need to turn to another feature of adjacency pairs.
Not all FPPs are created equal — some FPPs solicit, or prefer, affirmative or negative SPP partners. For example, if I bought a new guitar and said to you, “Isn’t it beautiful?” The tendency of the SPP is not neutral. I expect you to respond in the affirmative. You could respond in the negative, but doing so would require qualification; otherwise, you would threaten the relationship.
This is the idea of preference in conversation analysis. In general, positive questions prefer positive responses, and negative questions prefer negative responses. So, if I asked you, “Could you open the door for me?” The preferred response is positive (e.g., “Sure” or “I’d be happy to”). A negative response is possible, but it’s a marked response that would need explanation to avoid offending the first speaker.
Which brings me back to tag questions. As I’ve discussed, when tag questions occur after SPPs, they often negotiate misunderstandings or ambiguities. However, consider when they occur after FPPs. Observe the following:
“You’re going to help me clean the garage this weekend, aren’t you?”
“We can’t afford to eat out this weekend, can we?”
“You will drive me to work tomorrow, won’t you?“
“We should do our part to protect the environment, right?“
If these speakers had used an interrogative form (e.g., “Are you going to help me clean the garage this weekend?”), though still giving preference to positive responses, the preference selection of the SPP would be less. However, with the tag, the preference implies a previous agreement, as if the speaker simply reminded the other party of his obligation. The tag questions do not seek to confirm understanding — they pretend to confirm an accord that may or may not have existed. What’s worse, they intensify the principle of preference to compel the interlocutor to agree by deriving an FPP that prefers an affirmative response. Again, the interlocutor can respond with a negative SPP, but doing so generates threat to the relationship, so it risks more face.
That is why tag questions sometimes bother when employed to impose compliance through the application of preference, while masquerading as an attempt to clarify a tacit understanding that presumes too much.
Nevertheless, people who abuse their tags, strike a deal with the devil, for while they might sometimes bully someone into reluctant accord, the accord seekers undermine their own esteem since others may deem them in desperate need of validation.
- Clift R. (2016). Conversation Analysis. Cambridge University Press.
- Levinson. (1983). Pragmatics. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511813313
- Schegloff, E. (2007). Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511791208
Leave a Reply