It’s frustrating when something looks really easy, but you just can’t get it right, isn’t it? I hate it when I screw up the simplest things in French–don’t you? I mean, the conditional mood can’t be that hard, can it? And I studied the shit out of it before I took the C1 test, didn’t I? I studied it over and over, did I not? And all of those web pages that I read–they explained the conditional pretty well, didn’t they? And my brother and I are super-into this kind of shit, aren’t we? I didn’t neglect to study, did I? I’m going to sulk about this for weeks, aren’t I… I won’t give up complaining about this until I take the C2 and have something new to grouse about, will I…
Tag questions are one of those little things in English that look like they oughta be super-simple—but, in fact, they’re not. Actually, tag questions have complications in all of the languages in which I know anything about tag questions. (That’s not a ton of languages, but it’s more than a couple.) Japanese is a good example of a language in which tag-questions can be a problem for non-native speakers. There is a very easy way to ask a tag-question in Japanese: add ne to the end of a sentence. But, in Japanese (more accurately, in Japanese culture–when you figure out how to draw a precise line between language and culture, please notify us linguists), tag-questions get asked more frequently this way by women than by men, so Americans tend to learn them the way that they tend to be asked by women. But, if you’re a guy, you sound funny when you ask them, ’cause you’re speaking like a girl. Stereotypical conversation between an American guy and his Japanese girlfriend who has grown weary of him:
- American (soon-to-be-dumped) guy: This ice cream is good, ne (isn’t it)?
- His Japanese (soon-to-be-ex-) girlfriend: Stop talking like a girl, it’s weird!
I should point out that one of the most useful things for any American to learn to say in Japanese is a tag question. Kawaii, ne? means something like he/she/it is cute, isn’t he/she/it? You can use it to compliment babies and dogs, and it’s a great smile-eliciting ice-breaker.
We’ll use the same approach that we used the other day to work on son versus leur: drill something half a dozen times or so, drill something else half a dozen times or so, then mix them up. We’ll do tag questions that vary with respect to polarity: are we using a tag to ask something about something that is negated (Trump is not handling the stress well, is he?), or not negated (Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?) . Remember that we’re not testing ourselves here–we’re practicing. So, no stress–rather, joy, like if you had a free evening to go to judo class, or to work on a blog post that’s been giving you fits.
For starters: a “positive polarity” sentence. That means a sentence that makes a positive assertion, i.e. one that does not involve negation. In order to have to vary as little as possible in the beginning, we’ll stick with he. (Third person masculine singular, for those of you who like noun phrases.) We’ll also stick with the verb to be. Here’s the model that we’ll be following:
Prompt: Trump is an asshole.
Response: Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
The answers follow the lovely illustration.
- Trump is an assclown. (Assclown is a type of asshole. You could think of an assclown as an asshole who soaks up attention without realizing the extent to which he’s getting a lot of attention precisely because he’s an asshole.)
- George Papadopoulous is dead meat. (To be dead meat means to be in a lot of trouble.)
- Steve Bannon is a malignant fucker.
- Jared Kushner is an embarrassment.
- Melania Trump is a plagiarist. (trick question, sorry–Melania is not a he.)
- Paul Manafort is under indictment.
- Trump is an assclown, isn’t he?
- George Papadopoulous is dead meat, isn’t he?
- Steve Bannon is a malignant fucker, isn’t he?
- Jared Kushner is an embarrassment, isn’t he?
- Melania Trump is a plagiarist, isn’t… whoops!
- Paul Manafort is under indictment, isn’t he?
So far so good? Let’s switch “polarity” now: we’ll start with a negated sentence.
- Trump isn’t very happy.
- Milos isn’t a contributor at Breitbart anymore.
- Trump isn’t a very good example for the children of America.
- Kellyanne Conway isn’t very honest. (shit–did it again!)
- John Kelly is not helping things much.
- Trump isn’t actually as rich as he says he is.
Again, the answers follow the lovely illustration.
- Trump isn’t very happy, is he?
- Milos isn’t a contributor at Breitbart anymore, is he?
- Trump isn’t a very good example for the children of America, is he?
- Kellyanne Conway isn’t very honest, is she? (shit–did it again!)
- John Kelly is not helping things much, is he?
- Trump isn’t actually as rich as he says he is, is he?
Hanging in there? Great–let’s mix it up a bit. Remember: we’re not testing, we’re practicing. We’re drilling. Joy, not anxiety.
- Trump is screwing exactly the people who elected him.
- Trump isn’t very loyal.
- Trump is a fucking liar.
- Trump is a draft-dodger.
- Trump isn’t a military veteran.
- Trump isn’t honest.
Answers after the lovely illustration, as usual: