Trump is an asshole, isn’t he? Tag questions in English II

It’s frustrating when something LOOKS really easy, but you just can’t get it right, isn’t it?

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?

The preceding questions are examples of “tag questions.”  A tag question is made up of two parts:

  1. An assertion (think of it as a sentence)
  2. Something added to the end of it to turn it into a question (I think always expecting a yes or a no answer, but I can’t swear to it). Tag questions invite a specific response: either a yes, or a no.

For example:

Assertion Tag Invited response
Trump is an asshole isn’t he Yes
Trump est vraiment un gros connard hein Oui
Kawaii ne Ee

Tag questions have many functions in anglophone social contexts.  Female speakers of English are often said to use tag questions to avoid making overly confident statements and to reduce the force of what they have to say. From a blog post by Mark Liberman:

In her influential (1975) work Language and Women’s Place, Robin Lakoff depicted a typical female speech style, allegedly characterized by the use of features such as hesitations, qualifiers, tag questions, empty adjectives, and other properties, which she asserted to have a common function: to weaken or mitigate the force of an utterance. Thus tag questions “are associated with a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker.”  —Language Log

However: tag questions can also be powerful tools.  As Roger Shuy puts it in his book Linguistics in the courtroom: A practical guide,

Be alert for questions ending with tags such as, “didn’t you” or “wasn’t it.”  Discourse analysts know that tag questions intend to influence the answer in the way it was stated before the tag.  Lawyers know that it’s very hard to disagree with the premise of a tag question.  Among other things, the listener first has to temporarily suspend belief in the cooperative principle of conversation (Grice 1977).  Linguistic experts should have no problem with this, right?  But it’s one thing to know this academically and quite another to have it happen to you in a deposition, where your mind is racing about many other things.  –-Roger Shuy


Tag questions are one of those things that look simple.  In fact, they can be pretty complicated, and that is the case in every language in which I know anything at all about tag questions.  That’s not a million, but it’s more than a couple.  For example, in Bulgarian, the particle li is used to form yes-no questions:

  • Obichash me (you love me)
  • Obichash li me (do you love me?)

There are two tags (that I know of): nali, which invites a response of da (yes), and dali, which invites a response of ne (no).

Let’s think through those two tags.  You already know that li means a yes-no question.  In Bulgarian, da means yes, while ne means no.  But, if you’re expecting a yes-no question to be answered yes, you put nali at the end of it, while if you’re expecting a yes-no question to be answered no, you put dali at the end of it.  Ne me obichash, dali?  (You don’t love me, do you?)  This confuses the hell out of non-native speakers.


For all that they appear simple, English-language tag questions often confuse non-native speakers.  In order to construct them, you have to get a lot of things right–the person and gender of the pronoun, the polarity of the tag, the verb in the tag, and the tense, at a minimum.  In a recent post, we did some drills on tag questions of this form:

Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?

Trump isn’t honest, is he?

To get those right, you had to:

  1. Get the pronoun right (he)
  2. Get the “polarity” right (isn’t he versus is he)
  3. Get the tense right (is/isn’t, not was/wasn’t)
  4. The verb in the tag (is, not do, etc.)

Today let’s start with that basic frame, but add in plural subjects.  We’ll keep the verb to be and the present tense, but with plural subjects, we’ll need the plural forms of the irregular verb to be:

  1. Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
  2. Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?

As before, we’ll do half a dozen each of the positive and negative polarity forms (i.e. are + aren’t they and aren’t + are), and then mix them up a bit.  Scroll down past the picture for the answers.  Remember: we’re drilling, not testing ourselves, so no anxiety–just joy in the bizarreness of all languages.

  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes.
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists.
  3. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind.
  4. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving.
  5. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country.
  6. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever.
1pp409
Picture source: https://imgflip.com/i/1pp409
  • Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?
  • Trump and Bannon are nihilists, aren’t they?
  • Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind, aren’t they?
  • Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving, aren’t they?
  • Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country, aren’t they?
  • Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever–aren’t they?

Now let’s switch the “polarity”–that is, let’s change from are + aren’t to aren’t + are.

  1. Trump and honesty are not close friends.
  2. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination.
  3. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war.
  4. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them.
  5. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party.
  6. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China.
spw7nqceuhoy
Picture source: https://www.reddit.com/r/MarchAgainstTrump/comments/62cetd/trump_the_draft_dodger/
  1. Trump and honesty are not close friends, are they?
  2. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination, are they?
  3. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war, are they?
  4. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them, are they?
  5. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party, are they?
  6. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China, are they?

…and finally, we’ll mix them up a bit.  Remember–we’re drilling, not testing!  No anxiety–just joy!

  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes.
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists.
  3. Trump and honesty are not close friends.
  4. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country.
  5. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination.
  6. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving.
  7. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war.
  8. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them.
  9. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party.
  10. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind.
  11. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China.
  12. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever.
veterans-against-trump
Picture source: http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2016/05/23/trump-veterans-fundraiser-protest/
  1. Trump and Kushner are assholes, aren’t they?
  2. Trump and Bannon are nihilists, aren’t they?
  3. Trump and honesty are not close friends, are they?
  4. Trump and his administration are a disaster for this country, aren’t they?
  5. Trump and nuclear weapons aren’t a very smart combination, are they?
  6. Trump and nuclear weapons are like booze and driving, aren’t they?
  7. Trump and his kids are not going to be in the line of fire if we go to war, are they?
  8. Trump and his cronies are not as good at making deals as they are at breaking them, are they?
  9. Trump and Roy Moore are not doing much to hide the essential hypocrisy of the Republican Party, are they?
  10. Trump and Kim Jong Un are two of a kind, aren’t they?
  11. Trump and his Republican allies are not as interested in the people who elected them as they are in the people who shipped the factories in which those people used to work off to China, are they?
  12. Trump and his cronies are pulling off the biggest heist by any American president, ever, aren’t they?

 

4 thoughts on “Trump is an asshole, isn’t he? Tag questions in English II”

  1. I didn’t have the moment to comment on part one of this series. I just simply want to say this ‘at last a use for Trump’ … bravo – who expected that he would have a purpose. This is his destiny. I am happy

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I never had a phrase for those questions until I read this, but the British use them far more than Americans do, and I’ve never been sure what I’m supposed to answer (or even if), since they’re usually asking about things I couldn’t possibly know. “I wasn’t there, was I?” sounds like a perfectly reasonable question in this country, even though it makes me want to answer, “I don’t know, do I?”

    Liked by 1 person

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