Tag questions and persuasive language – when negatives are positive

The thing about grammar is that in and of itself there’s really no point to it.

Students do not come to class to learn about the present perfect, they come to class to learn how to speak English.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think learning about grammar can be part of that. And I personally find dissecting grammar systems quite interesting as a pure logic chopping exercise. Which is helpful when wading through your kids’ Spanish homework when you don’t speak the language at all.

But if you are going to teach grammar it’s important to keep sight of what a particular grammar structure might actually be useful for, in the real world.

And why it works like that.

There’s a sales technique called ‘foot in the door’ which is about trying to get your customer to agree to something, possibly even quite a small something, because once people have said yes once, they are more likely to say yes again, to potentially much bigger requests. Or sales pitches.

It’s based on studies such as the one where researchers who got homeowners to put a small sign about safe driving in their homes had good success rates in getting them to put a much bigger, more in your face sign up than when they started with the big request first. Nothing had changed about the arguments used, the rightousness of the message or the background of the people being asked, except that initial small step being easier to convert*.

If you know this is true (it is true), it’s not just useful for explaining advertorial hussle.

It is quite a useful thing to think about when you have to structure an argument. Start with strong statements first, the ones you feel that no-one in their right mind could disagree with. Nothing is too obvious, too banal an idea! You want to get your foot in the door. Then you might find that your more controversial points are more easily accepted.

It also explains a particular grammar feature that I find tends to get taught as a quirk, a rule, an oddity, without, perhaps, a proper focus on how powerful a linguistic trick it is.

It’s tag questions.

You know about tag questions, don’t you?


Well, you can ask a fairly direct question: Where do you live? Or, Do you live in Moscow?

Or you can make a statement, and add a tag. A questioning tag in fact.

You live in Moscow, don’t you? Or, You live in Moscow, don’t you?

There’s a lot of grammar involved in tag questions. If the statement is positive, the tag is negative. And also you have to match the form of it to the verb form used in the statement.

So, It isn’t going to rain, it it? You can dance the tango, can’t you? You saw this man on the night of the robbery, didn’t you? He won’t bite, will he? And so on and so forth.

Unless you live in London, where famously all the tags have been replaced by innit. And not just as a short version of isn’t it.

Image from the site pixabay.com

Before I declare that the grammar is the least interesting thing about tags, earning me a glare from every English student forced to try to manipulate the tags at speed, firstly, can I just point out Spanish conjugations and Russian cases? 

And secondly, a similar process has happened for short back channeling questions, the sort of ones we use to express an interest in what our interlocutor says.

So I went to him, right, I went, you muppet.

Did you? 

Yeah, and, like, he said I ain’t no muppet.

Did he?

Yeah, and then, right, I would of popped him one.

Would you?

Yeah, but his mum came out and was all, get in here and do your piano practice, Rupert.

Was she?


Anyway, I would be having conversations like this with the proper born and bred Londoners of my acquaintance, and finding them faintly off in some way, until I realised that what was actually happening was:

So I went to him, right, I went, you muppet.

Is it?

Yeah, and, like, he said I ain’t no muppet.

Is it?

Yeah, and then, right I would of popped him one.

Is it?

Yeah, but his mum came out and was all, get in here and do your piano practice, Rupert.

Is it?


I  apologize if the slang is a bit Gen X. I’m a bit Gen X. I also can’t do this at all, because Gen X, not a Londoner and probably way too middle class. I LOVE it though. Let’s hope for all our learners’ sakes it catches on. I’d put money on it having something to do with London as a melting pot for people who are not here for this amount of auxiliary verb manipulation in a second or third language, so it could well be the future in a proper English as a Lingua Franca world. Let’s wait and see.

In the meantime, here is an expert Londoner showing us how it’s done:

Getting back to tag questions though, the grammar, apart from the butchering of it by Londoners, is the least interesting part of this structure.

The most interesting part is the intonation.

There are two variants. Which is why there were two versions of the same question about Moscow above. No, it wasn’t a typo.

If you ask about my residence in Moscow with a rising intonation, it’s a genuine question. You have an inkling that this might be true, which is why it’s not a straight out question, but still, you are not quite sure. So you are checking.

But if you use a falling tone, it’s not a question. You know I live in Moscow.

Now at this point people I am talking to about this are nodding politely and resigning themselves to having to spend a lot of time doing gap fill exercises to try to automatise the verb manipulation process.

But what they should be asking is, if it’s a statement of something you already know, why ask a (sort of) question about it? Why bring it up at all, in fact?

It’s because tag questions with a falling intonation, force agreement. Because you are making a true statement. That’s what the intonation means. The tag is there to drag the agreeing response.

In its most benign form it’s a lovely small talk generator. You are standing next to a stranger at the bus stop and say, Lovely day, isn’t it? And your interlocutor pretty much has to answer and five minutes later you can get the pictures of your budgie out and invite them to the next book club meeting.

But if you are trying to pitch something, it’s also a nice trick. Have you ever found yourself saying, You understand, don’t you? Especially while nodding your head? Well, then you might be a teacher. You also aren’t actually checking comprehension very effectively, but it does tend to allow you to power on with whatever you want to get to next.

Works with any negative question, actually. In English, they are designed to get the answer yes.

Isn’t it time you went home? Didn’t you say you would do the washing up today? Aren’t those shoes a bit expensive? Wouldn’t you like to go on holiday to Paris this year? Etc.

And once you’ve got that yes, that foot in the door, well. 

Might be worth putting the effort into learning all those conjugated tags after all. 

Or moving to London.

* Freedman, J. L.; Fraser, S. C. (1966). “Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 4 (2): 195–202

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