Context: (BrE) - a friend is complaining...

a- "I phoned you three times this morning but you never answered."

b- "I was in the bath, wasn't I?

Why the question-tag, if the listener had no idea what the other person was doing?

I've searched and found that Brown and Levinson regard this use of question-tag as being characteristic of positive politeness. Then again, John Algeo says it's impolite and expresses great annoyance.

What state of mind does it convey? Is there a word or phrase for this form of rhetoric?

  • The second one applies: it’s definitely annoyed and yes, it may be a bit rude. Then again, it’s not a nice question to be asked, either. – tchrist Aug 24 '15 at 23:49
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    It's a sign of irritation and is the equivalent of accusing the other person of being stupid, by stating a plain fact as a question as if the other person were a school child being tutored and not doing very well. – Robusto Aug 25 '15 at 0:13
  • @Robusto Is it used in AmE ? – Centaurus Aug 25 '15 at 0:14
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    This really depends on context and tone of voice, i.e., how it's used. There is no inherent rudeness/politeness associated with the question tag itself. I can question myself if I am trying to recall- but can't quite remember, what I was doing: "I was at the mall wasn't I? / or was I? - not rude at all- more like, thoughtful, pondering. But put it in a Monty Python housewife screech and in the bath tub context you describe and it's definitely rude. (Although I don't think it's intended to permanently offend, it's more like just colloquially brusque.) – Jim Aug 25 '15 at 0:26
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    @Centaurus: I can't think of instances when I've heard it in AmE, but I wouldn't exactly rule it out. Running it over in my mind's ear, it feels extremely sarcastic in AmE. – Robusto Aug 25 '15 at 0:34

"Wasn't I?" at the end of a statement can certainly can be read as indicating peevishness.

Also though, and in my experience, many Londoners use phrases like "wasn't I?", "weren't I?", "didn't I" as narrative intensifiers.

"So, I was going up the Elephant and Castle weren't I , when this geezer stops me with a question about English usage"

(Slipping into the narrative present as another intensifier.)

I've not used the comma before "weren't I" (nor a question mark after it) here, because when spoken, the tag's sort of run on. Perhaps this small punctuation change can differentiate my version (which doesn't by itself indicate annoyance) from the original sentence, which uses the comma.

it's a matter of trying to reproduce speech patterns in writing; as Jim comments, it's a matter of context and tone of voice. And as such, I can't think where to find a reference online, unfortunately.

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Yes, in British English it's a retort. I don't know if it is used in US English.

What state of mind does it convey? ---> snappishness, irritation possibly with a touch of humour.

Note that it can also be used when the asker should know the answer, e.g.

"Where are you?"

"Why are you asking? It's 11am on Monday."


"So, I'm at work aren't I?"

Is there a word or phrase for this form of rhetoric? I don't know of one.

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    Might not be used as frequently and intensely in the US, but the same sort of usage is possible. – Hot Licks Aug 25 '15 at 1:23
  • @HotLicks - (This comment is for anyone interested, not just Hot Licks.) I live in the US and I would express this kind of annoyance this way: "Um, I'm at work?" It's important to have the upward inflection at the end. The um softens it a bit. We want the other person to feel like he's not paying attention, but we don't want to rub his nose in it. (By the way, the other person might answer with "Duh", meaning Oops, I just said something stupid.) Would this fit where you live? – aparente001 Aug 26 '15 at 0:30

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