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He did nothing*.

Which is the correct question tag for the sentence above?

  1. didn't he?

  2. did he?

What is the effect of using nothing for negation?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 1 down vote accepted

He did nothing

Which is the correct question tag for the sentence above:

didn't he?

did he?

Hum, I think either one is possible. My interpretation of this is that if you said

He did nothing, did he?

it would mean that you think that I've said that he did nothing and you want me to confirm that. If you said

He did nothing, didn't he.

it would mean that you assert that he did nothing and you expect me to confirm that.

What is the effect of using nothing for negation?

My interpretation is that if you said

He didn't do anything.

it sounds more neutral (less emphatic) than if you said

He did nothing.

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Wikipedia says:

English tag questions may contain a negation, but need not. When there is no special emphasis, the rule of thumb often applies that a positive sentence has a negative tag and vice versa:

  • She is French, isn't she?
  • She's not French, is she?

These are sometimes called "balanced tag questions". However, it has been estimated that in normal conversation, as many as 40%-50% of tags break this rule. "Unbalanced tag questions" (positive to positive or negative to negative) may be used for ironic or confrontational effects:

  • Do listen, will you?
  • Oh, I'm lazy, am I?
  • Jack: I refuse to spend Sunday at your mother's house! Jill: Oh you do, do you? We'll see about that!
  • Jack: I just won't go back! Jill: Oh you won't, won't you?

Patterns of negation can show regional variations. In North East Scotland, for example, positive to positive is used when no special effect is desired:

  • This pizza's fine, is it? (standard English: This pizza's delicious, isn't it?)
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You did not get me right. I meant to put "nothing" to see its effect on the tag.. –  Dia Sep 1 '10 at 19:16
    
According to the quote the literal answer is: "None." –  Arda Xi Sep 1 '10 at 20:09
    
Hey Arda Xi, would you please explain your comment. –  Dia Sep 1 '10 at 21:07
    
-1 My opinion is that this is not a useful answer (this doesn't answer the question). –  delete Sep 2 '10 at 4:13

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