How linguists think: Tag questions in English IV

Linguistics is similar to organic chemistry in some respects: how things combine tells you something about what those things are. 

Tag questions are those simple little things that you use to get someone to give you a yes-or-no answer:

  • Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?
  • Trump screwed the pooch on health care, didn’t he?
  • Trump lies a lot, doesn’t he?

Actually, they’re not so simple, those little questions…. They have an odd quirk that will give you a little bit of insight into how linguists think through things.


I often explain linguistics to people as being similar to organic chemistry in some respects: on one level, it’s about figuring out what the parts of language are, and how they go together.  As is the case in organic chemistry, how the parts go together–or don’t–tells you something about what those parts are.  An example: the distinction between auxiliary verbs and other verbs.

prague-couvent-strahov-14
The main library at the Strahov monastery in Prague. Enlarge the picture and look closely at the upper-left corner–that’s Les Encyclopédistes being cast into hell. Source: https://www.avantgarde-prague.fr/

In general, scientists tend to start with the assumption that everything is the same until proven otherwise.  Proving it to be otherwise is not always as simple as you might think–consider the fuzzy separation between things as basic as matter and energy in the physical universe.  For the Encyclopédistes, separating the realm of the Divine from the realm of everything else was a major nouveauté–and one that they were condemned for.  (This summer I saw a monastery library in Prague that had a gorgeous painted ceiling; the fresco included a scene of the Encyclopédistes being cast into Hell.  This is why.)

Back to tag questions… In English, the verbs in tag questions exhibit an odd behavior.  There are some verbs that can be in the “sentence” to which the tag is added, as well as in the tag.  For example:

  • Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?
  • Trump could get impeached, couldn’t he?
  • Trump did reveal intelligence to the Russian ambassador, didn’t he?

But, most verbs can’t show up in the tag.  Instead, they are replaced by did.  For example:

  • Trump screwed the people who elected him with that tax bill, didn’t he?
  • Trump went kinda apeshit over the whole inauguration crowd thing, didn’t he?  Insecure loser…
  • Trump lied about Obama’s birth certificate, didn’t he?

To a linguist, the fact that English verbs cluster into two groups–ones that can appear in the tag of a tag question, and ones that can’t–suggests that there are two distinct kinds of verbs in the language.  This is one piece of evidence that you could use if you wanted to argue (and linguists do love to argue about language) that there is such a thing as a distinction between auxiliary verbs and other kinds of verbs.  It’s just like organic chemistry–knowing how the parts go together tells you something about what they are.


See these previous posts on forming tag questions:

3rd person singular tag questions with the verb is

3rd person plural tag questions with the verb are

3rd person singular past tense tag questions with was

We’ve been working on tag questions with the verb to be recently.  We worked on the third person singular (Trump is an asshole, isn’t he?) and the third person plural (Trump and his cronies ARE the swamp, aren’t they?).  We did that in the present tense–let’s try the past tense now, ’cause the verb in the tag has to agree with the verb in the base sentence with respect to tense.  (Still think that tag questions are simple?)

We’ll follow our usual structure for drills–half a dozen on the same model, half a dozen on a similar model, and then mix ’em up.  Remember: we’re not testing ourselves–we’re practicing.  This is fun!  (…and this is why I never get a second date.)

Model:

  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
  1. Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war.
  2. Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while.
  3. Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy.
  4. Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet.  Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever.  Fucking coward.
  5. Trump was more pissed about being criticized for his defense of the bigots in Charlottesville than he was about the poor girl that was murdered by a white supremacist.

Scroll down past the picture for the answers.

ckvzcty

  • Trump was a draft dodger during the Vietnam war, wasn’t he?
  • Trump was remarkably silent about Roy Moore for quite a while, wasn’t he?
  • Obama was fucking wonderful for the economy, wasn’t he?
  • Trump was given a draft deferment for bone spurs in his feet, wasn’t he?  Now he says he’s the healthiest president ever.  Fucking coward.
  • Trump was more pissed about being criticized for his defense of the bigots in Charlottesville than he was about the poor girl that was murdered by a white supremacist, wasn’t he?

…and now the opposite polarity:

  1. Trump wasn’t actually a very successful businessman.
  2. Trump wasn’t above refusing to pay small businessmen who had done work for him.
  3. Trump wasn’t embarrassed to declare bankruptcy.
  4. Trump wasn’t honest with the students in his real estate “school.”
  5. Trump wasn’t eager for war when he was still young enough to be drafted.

…and scroll down past the picture for the answers once again!

mccain-trump

  • Trump wasn’t actually a very successful businessman, was he?
  • Trump wasn’t above refusing to pay small businessmen who had done work for him, was he?
  • Trump wasn’t embarrassed to declare bankruptcy, was he?
  • Trump wasn’t honest with the students in his real estate “school,” was he?
  • Trump wasn’t eager for war when he was still young enough to be drafted, was he?

French notes

la fresque: fresco.

English notes

vacay: slang for “vacation.”  How it was used in the post: Trump sure needs a lot of little golf mini-vacays, doesn’t he?

to screw the pooch: “Pooch” is a slang term for “dog.”  I would call it archaic, personally–but, I think I might be wrong about that.  To wit: if you compare its frequency to the frequency of the word dog, it’s clearly quite rare–here’s a graph of their frequencies in English-language books over the course of the 200 years from 1800 to 2000:

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=pooch%2Cdog&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cdog%3B%2Cc0

…but, if you look just at the frequency of pooch alone, you see that it climbs quite a bit in the mid-1980s. Why? I have no clue.

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=pooch&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cpooch%3B%2Cc0

Now, to screw the pooch: Wiktionary defines it as to screw up; to fail in dramatic and ignominious fashion.  That’s bad.  Ooooooh, this is interesting–I just looked for screw the pooch (and its past tense and present participial forms) on Google Ngrams, and look what I found–its frequency jumps around the same time that we saw a jump in pooch: 

https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=screw+the+pooch%2Cscrewed+the+pooch%2Cscrewing+the+pooch&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cscrew%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cscrewed%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cscrewing%20the%20pooch%3B%2Cc0

Could the mid-1980s resurgence of pooch that we saw in the second graph be due to a growth in the use of screw the pooch?  Possibly so.  Wiktionary says that the expression to screw the pooch became popular due to its appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book The right stuff in 1979 and its film adaptation in 1983–these graphs certainly support that timing!

 

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