We always use a positive tag question after a negative sentence:

You shouldn't take this medicine, should you?

We use a negative tag question after a positive sentence:

She must leave early, mustn't she?

But when there is a negating prefix on the adjective (impatient vs. patient) after the verb "to be", then the sentence is negative in meaning. Does this mean the tag should be positive?

Which is correct, A or B?

A: I am impatient, am I?

B: I am impatient, aren't I?

A: The class was dismissed, was it?

B: The class was dismissed, wasn't it?

  • The first step is figuring out the polarity for the default interrogative tag. The default tag's polarity is usually the opposite to the polarity of the main clause. And so, that means that figuring out the polarity of the main clause is often important. Sometimes, though, the chosen tag's polarity is the same as the main clause's, and there's usually a reason behind that choice. (Generally, a negative main clause seldom allows a negative tag, though it does happen sometimes.) So, what is the polarity of the main clauses in your examples? – F.E. Mar 5 '14 at 22:43
  • I'm not a native English speaker, but as far as I've noticed, the suffix also refers to the expected answer. If you want a positive answer, you use a negative suffix and vice versa. – BlueCacti Mar 5 '14 at 22:49

1A: [So,] I am impatient, am I?

would be used when you at last meet the chap who's been telling all your workmates that he thinks you're impatient.

1B: I am impatient, aren't I?

uses the usual tag question, here begrudgingly asking for confirmation (which one hopes will be given in a not-too-unpleasant way) of one's self-assessment.

2A: The class was dismissed, was it?

This can be used in a way showing surprise at hearing the news, or in a challenging way (challenging the decision to dismiss or the statement that it had been dismissed) as in 1A. It could also be an unmarked form, equivalent to 'Can you confirm that the class was dismissed?'

2B: The class was dismissed, wasn't it?

This is not unmarked, but conveys the questioner's belief that the class probably had been dismissed, or the questioner's view that the class should have been dismissed (emphasis on was).

  • "The class was dismissed, was/wasn't it?" Could you provide a way for us to see what the polarity of the main clause is for that example? -- In that way, we can then see what the default tag would be. (For I'm seeing the example as being similar to "He was dismissed, and so was I".) – F.E. Mar 5 '14 at 21:37
  • The 'default tag' analysis would improve on the above answer and Mark's generalisation in what way? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 5 '14 at 22:50
  • 1
    Mark? . . . Do you mean "Mark Raishbrook"? His answer is mostly right; but he's using the term "positive verb", and I'm sorta assuming that he means "positive polarity main clause". -- As for your post, I'm assuming that when you say "usual tag" that that means "default tag", and as to what the default/usual tag actually is will depend on the polarity of the main clause. The main clause "The class was dismissed" seems to have what as its polarity? At first blush, it seems to maybe be positive? (And so, the default tag might then be *"wasn't it".) – F.E. Mar 5 '14 at 23:09
  • Agreed, but OP is essentially asking about a semanto-syntactic rather than a purely syntactic issue. Yes, his question would be better phrased: (a) Is the polarity of a statement governed solely by the presence of negating particles (not, no, never ...) rather than a negative tone / negative-marking affixes on descriptors etc? (b) If so, must tag questions always carry the reverse polarity to that of the statement? – Edwin Ashworth Mar 6 '14 at 11:19

Whether the adjective implies negativity or not is irrelevant. A positive verb with a negative tag (or vice versa) suggests the speaker just about knows the answer but is seeking confirmation; a positive verb with a positive tag (or a negative verb with a negative tag) suggests confrontation, surprise, etc., on the part of the speaker.


The structure in A would be used to challenge the characterization: "Oh, so I'm impatient, am I? I waited for you for an hour! Would an impatient person have done that?"

The structure in B would be used to agree with the characterization: "She wasn't there 3 minutes after she said she would arrive, so I left. I guess I'm pretty impatient, aren't I?"

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