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A couple of days ago, I sat for an English exam. There was a question there that asked for the appropriate question tag for the sentence "He's too weak to walk." I answered "isn't he?" but my teacher claimed that the correct answer should be "is he?" since the sentence expresses a negative meaning. Frankly his explanation made no sense to me.

Is he right? Am I missing something? What should be the appropriate question tag for the sentence He's too weak to walk.?


When we're asked to add question tags in tests, we are expected to add tags that agree with the assertion, for example, It's a great day, isn't it? Question tags that genuinely express doubt whether the sentence is true or not aren't expected.

  • You need to add the caveat you mention later in comments. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 9 '15 at 17:47
  • The question tag is not so much about agreeing or disagreeing as it is confirming fact or knowledge. is he? is simply asking the question, "is that right?" as in, "I didn't know that." conversely, isn't he? conveys prior knowledge. – erich Feb 10 '15 at 3:58
  • Are you sure they weren't asking for a tag question this time? – Araucaria Feb 15 '15 at 15:26
28

"He's too weak to walk"

Is he ? suggests that the person asking is doubting, or at least needing confirmation of the assertion.

Isn't he? suggests the person agrees with the assertion.

The point is, they have different meanings and should be used depending entirely upon whether or not the person asking agrees or not with the assertion.

  • True. But the thing is that my teacher was arguing that the question tag in "He's too weak to walk, is he?" serves the same purpose as the question tag in "It's a great day, isn't it?" When our tests ask us to add tag questions to sentences, they ask us to add tags that agree with the assertion. Thanks for your answer! – mursalin Feb 9 '15 at 15:05
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    It's a great day, isn't it? and It's a great day, is it? are NOT the same. Isn't it expresses agreement, Is it? suggests a jaded, sarcastic, world-weary cynicism – Dan Feb 9 '15 at 15:12
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    Oh, it does, does it? – user98990 Feb 9 '15 at 15:21
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    Even without italics, or bold! ;) – Dan Feb 9 '15 at 15:27
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    @mursalin Your teacher's wrong! But be nice to your teacher! – Araucaria Feb 9 '15 at 16:02
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Wikipedia has an overarching approach:

Balanced vs unbalanced tags

English question tags exist in both positive and negative forms. When there is no special emphasis, the rule of thumb often applies that a positive sentence has a negative tag and vice versa. This form may express confidence, or seek confirmation of the asker's opinion or belief.

She is French, isn't she?

She's not French, is she?

These are referred to as balanced tag questions.

Unbalanced tag questions feature a positive statement with a positive tag, or a negative statement with a negative tag; it has been estimated that in normal conversation, as many as 40%-50%[2] of tags are unbalanced. Unbalanced tag questions 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!

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?) Note the following variations in the negation when the auxiliary is the I form of the copula:

England (and America, Australia, etc.): Clever, aren't I? Scotland/Northern Ireland: Clever, amn't I? nonstandard dialects: Clever, ain't I?

As usual, you can't say a usage is ungrammatical until you've decided on your particular grammar.

And even then, the intersection of 'grammatical according to say CGEL' and 'what my teacher wants' will doubtless be shaded grey.

  • And how many shades of grey your teacher wants depends rather a lot on what discipline they specialize in... – Erik Kowal Feb 10 '15 at 12:34
  • @Erik Kowal Discipline? In schools? – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '15 at 12:55
  • I was thinking of a certain series of books devoted to the schooling of a couple of young ladies in a variety of, um, ...disciplines. (They are not just any old rump-of-the-milf books, I may add.) – Erik Kowal Feb 10 '15 at 13:05
  • Once you get past 50, these things lose their appeal. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 10 '15 at 13:12
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I think you're right.

since the sentence expresses a negative meaning.

Nope, there is no negation operator in "He's too weak to walk."

On the other hand, a sentence like, "It hardly solves our problems, does it?" has a positive question tag because hardly acts as a negation operator here.

5

"He's too weak to walk, is he?" would be expressing a degree of incredulity (and in many contexts would be impolite). It basically says that you don't believe he's that weak.

However, there's a slight opening for the above to be fairly neutral, if the "is he" is pronounced with very little emphasis. In that case the implication is that you're simply mulling over the implications of "too weak to walk".

"He's too weak to walk, isn't he?" would be expressing an assertion that "too weak to walk" was a true statement, but giving the listener an opportunity to disagree.

  • When we're asked to add tags to sentences in tests, we're expected to add normal 'agree-with-the-assertion' tags like "You don't even like it, do you?", not tags that express doubt. That's why I don't see why my teacher thinks 'is he?' is right. Thanks for the answer. – mursalin Feb 9 '15 at 17:23
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I think that explanation is wrong (I think you are right). "He's too weak to walk" expresses a negative only in that it indirectly says he can't do something (walk).

It would only sound right to say "Is he?" if the negative ("not") appeared explicitly.

  • Thanks! Sometimes the negative doesn't have to appear explicitly, for example, "It hardly solves our problem, does it?". I think my teacher was trying to go for something like that. But I don't think that applies here. I understand how the English language works or at least I think I do. Unfortunately, my teacher thinks that as well. – mursalin Feb 9 '15 at 13:58
  • Good counterexample – CactusHouse Feb 9 '15 at 15:52
3

There's nothing inherently "positive" or "negative" about either of these options. Neither one implies agreement or disagreement. You can use one or the other with careful inflection of tone or in the right context to suggest positivity/agreement or negativity/disagreement, but that has little to do with grammar.

The "is he?" tag is a rhetorical request for confirmation of a fact that was just stated. This is a form of parroting: repeating a statement, possibly in paraphrase, to indicate that the statement was heard and understood. Consider the following exchange:

A: "I'm afraid he's not feeling well."

B: "He's sick, is he?"

The second speaker is paraphrasing the first and repeating the statement. The only information this adds to the conversation is the fact that the second speaker heard and understood the first. It's possible that the second speaker is using this form mockingly (as if to say, "Oh really? I doubt that."), but this is impossible to know without context or analysis of the vocal inflections used.

The "isn't he?" tag is a genuine request for confirmation of an idea that hasn't been clearly expressed in the conversation yet. Consider the following exchange:

A: "I'm afraid he's not available."

B: "He's sick, isn't he?"

The second speaker imagines something (that the reason the subject of the conversation isn't available is because he's sick) and is asking the first for confirmation of the idea. Again, any deeper implications cannot be known without more context or vocal analysis.

It's not unreasonable for the "is he?" form to be used as a genuine request for clarification rather than a rhetorical one. Gramatically speaking, this is perfectly fine. In practice, however, I think it's avoided as the "is he?" tag is commonly used to imply mockery or disbelief. But again, this is not gramatically relevant.

In short, the correct answer depends on what meaning your teacher ultimately wants you to convey. Does the teacher want you to express understanding, or request clarification? In the former case, only "is he?" is the correct answer. In the latter case, either option could technically work.

Based on your description of your teacher's instructions, it seems that they were looking for the former case, where only "is he?" is the correct answer.

-2

If the class is British English, "is he?" would be expected, but in the US of A you'd need "not" in the sentence to make "is he?" sound natural:

"He's not too weak to walk, is he?" "She's not going to the store, is she?"

-otherwise-

"He's too weak to walk, isn't he?" "She's going to the store, isn't she?"

  • Thanks! But even if the class is British English, "He's too weak to walk, is he?" sounds really unnatural, doesn't it? Does anyone even say that even if they are British? – mursalin Feb 9 '15 at 13:28
  • BrEng also has the negative question tag e.g. You know that, don't you? and It's not too late, is it? and "It's too late to go out now, isn't it?" In tests candidates can't modify the original questions, they're stuck with them. – Mari-Lou A Feb 9 '15 at 13:29
  • Not my downvote, because your examples are correct but it doesn't answer the OP's question. – Mari-Lou A Feb 9 '15 at 13:36
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    I don't think this usage varies according top BrE/AmE. For both, You're sure, are you? tends to be used when the speaker positively doesn't believe whatever you're sure about, whereas You're sure, aren't you? carries the strong implication that he doesn't know, (he simply wants confirmation that you know). – FumbleFingers Feb 9 '15 at 13:41
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Ok look."he's too weak to walk".Some are saying that the tag of this should be "is he?". But if you turn that sentence into a negative one , you'll get ,"he's so weak that he cannot walk."Now clearly the tag in this case would be,"can he?". So here is my question .The negative form has a positive tag.Then how can it's positive form again have a positive tag? So I think the tag should be ,"isn't he? "

  • The negative of "He's too weak..." is He isn't too weak..." or "He's not to weak..." – Mari-Lou A Jan 18 '18 at 9:57

protected by tchrist Jan 18 '18 at 9:28

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