Question Words and Question Tags
When you want to ask a question in English, you often need to use a question word. But which is the right word to use? And what are question tags and how can you create them? Read on to find out more!
Question words are words we put at the start of a question to ask for particular information. Here they are:
What – to ask about things when there are many possible answers
Which – to ask about things when there are a limited number of possible answers
Who – to ask about people
Where – to ask about place
When – to ask about a date or time
Why – to ask the reason
How – to ask about condition or a method
Here are some examples:
What did you do last weekend? – We went to the seaside.
Which tennis court are we playing on? 1 or 2?
Who’s that? – That’s Mr Roberts.
Where are you from? – I’m from Australia.
When’s your birthday? – It’s on 25th May.
Why do you need to learn English? – It’s important for my job.
How’s your brother? – He’s well thanks.
What or Which?
When you ask about things/objects, you can use what or which. But there is an important difference. When there are many possible answers we use what. For example,
What’s your name?
What’s your telephone number?
What’s your job?
What’s your address?
When there are a limited number of answers, we use which. For example,
Which do you prefer? Tea or coffee?
I’ve got two pens. Which one do you want?
Which football team do you support?
We can also combine several words with ‘how’ to ask other questions.
How long – to ask the duration of an action or situation
How much – to ask the cost or the quantity of an uncountable thing
How many – to ask the quantity of a countable thing
How far – to ask the distance
How often – to ask the frequency of an action
Here are some examples:
How long are you staying in LA? – For two weeks.
How much is this shirt? – It’s $35.
How many employees are there in your company? – 45.
How far is the city center from here? – It’s 2 kms.
How often do you work out? – Twice a week.
A question tag is a rather strange language structure but is very commonly used by native speakers. It’s like a little question added at the end of an affirmative sentence. For example,
You’re an English student, aren’t you?
We use question tags for two reasons:
- To ask confirmation
- To involve someone in a conversation
By saying, for example,
You want to learn English, don’t you?
I’m almost certain the main phrase is true but I want you to confirm, and by adding the tag question the listener needs to respond. Compare the following:
Are you from this city? (I don’t know the answer at all.)
You’re from this city, aren’t you? (I’m 90% sure you’re from this city but I want you to confirm.)
We also use question tags as a way to start a conversation or encourage someone to speak. For example,
It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?
By saying this, I know the weather is beautiful and I expect you to agree, but you need to respond and we can therefore start a discussion.
How to create question tags
Creating question tags is a little tricky and takes some practice. The key things to remember in constructing tag questions are the following:
- A tag question always has two words
- These two words are an auxiliary or modal verb of the main sentence plus the subject
- If the main sentence is affirmative, the tag question is negative, and if the main sentence is negative, the tag question is affirmative.
You can swim, can’t you?
In order to help you create the tag question, you can think what the question form of the sentence would be, then make it negative or affirmative. For example,
You like football.
Do you like football?
You like football, don’t you?
Here are some other examples in the simple present and in other tenses too:
She comes from Shanghai, doesn’t she?
You don’t want to leave, do you?
You’re coming tomorrow, aren’t you?
Tom wasn’t on your train, was he?
They’ve moved to Paris, haven’t they?
We don’t have to go to the party, do we?
It’s stopped raining, hasn’t it?
Question tags with the verb ‘to be’
As you know, for all verbs we make questions by adding the auxiliary verb ‘do’, except with the verb ‘to be’. So when we make question tags with ‘to be’ we just invert the verb and subject as we do in normal questions. For example,
You’re an English student.
Are you an English student?
You’re an English student, aren’t you?
There is one irregularity with question tags and the verb ‘to be’. When we need to use a negative question tag with the first person singular, we use aren’t instead of am not (simply because there isn’t a contracted form to use). For example,
I’m late, aren’t I? (Not, am not I?)
However, when the tag is affirmative following a negative sentence, the tag can use am I. For example,
I’m not late, am I?
Question tags for imperatives
When we need a question tag for an imperative sentence, we use will/won’t. For example,
Have a seat, won’t you?
Help yourself to some cake, won’t you?
Don’t wait for us, will you?
When you’re angry, you can use the affirmative form in combination with an affirmative phrase. For example,
Children, be quiet, will you?
Get back to work, will you?
While for imperatives in the first person plural using Let’s, we use shall we for the tag. For example,
Let’s meet at the restaurant, shall we?
Let’s go out, shall we?
I understand that it’s not easy for non-native speakers to create question tags naturally and fluently, but it’s very useful to know them so that you’re prepared for when you hear them. And you can perhaps start to use the most basic form yourself. For example, when you see someone you’ve met before and you want to check you remember their name correctly, you can say,
You’re Maria, aren’t you?
Then you can gradually build on this using tags with don’t you. For example,
You work in Marketing, don’t you?
Question words are essential in allowing you to get the information you need. And question tags can help you sound like a native speaker!
How can you become confident in using question words and question tags? By practicing! Start now by doing a quick quiz.
Do you want to improve your level of communication? Read on to find out more about the four conditionals and how to use them.