Thursday, 8 September 2011

tag questions in AmE/BrE

Another American/British English question from the woman who's obsessed with them.

A paper by Gunnel Tottie and Sebastian Hoffmann used a corpus methodology to find that the British use NINE TIMES more tag questions than Americans. BUT they only studied canonical tag questions. I have my suspicions that the story might've been quite different if they'd looked at non-canonical ones.

Canonical tag questions have an auxiliary or modal verb that is in the opposite polairty (i.e. affirmative or negative) to the main clause, plus a pronoun that co-refers with the subject of the main clause. So:
You've cut your hair, haven't you?  [affirmative clause + negative tag]
You don't like broccoli, do you?  [negative clause + affirmative tag]
 Non-canonical ones would be things like:
He's a loser, innit?
You're taking semantics, right?
The weather is great, eh?
And other things like that where the tag is there to kind of ask the hearer to confirm what's been said. (I say 'kind of' because the purpose might not be quite that straightforward.)

So, if we take those kinds of things into account, do the British really use more tag questions than Americans? Do they use the same non-canonical tags? Do they use them for the same purposes?


  1. When teaching English over here in France, we make a difference in intonation between the falling tone of a tag asking for confirmation and the rising one stirred by real doubt (1= 'you've heard that, haven't you ?' 2= 'she fled to the US in 1939, didn't she ? I can't remember')

    I agree, it seems to me that British people use 'canonical' tags far more than Americans (my next-door neighbOrs !).

    1. I forget a third one ! Rising pitch when ANOTHER person is surprised by the statement: 'She fled to the US in 1939.' 'Oh, did she ?'
      (this time, no change in forms. It's virtually a proper question. So maybe irrelevant here, though).

  2. "You know" is probably the most common American form, you know?