"We've never played that game before have we not James?"

Is this correct? I say it's incorrect, my wife says it is correct. I believe it should be

"We've never played that game before have we James?"

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    I agree with you. But I am intrigued as to why you entitle the question Northern sayings. I do not recognise your wife's expression as "Northern". – WS2 Apr 16 '17 at 7:32
  • Maybe not so much northern then but Blackburn, and if its not a Blackburn thing it must be something just all her family say ha ha. – David Regan Apr 16 '17 at 8:17
  • As a northern Brit, I would say it is a family thing. "Is he not" and its variations are used, but as a direct replacement for "isn't he" and following the same opposite polarity convention. – Roaring Fish Apr 16 '17 at 14:02

We can add an extra short clause to the end of sentences to turn them into questions. These involve subject auxiliary inversion and are usually two words. We call them question tags. In general, positive sentences in English take negative question tags:

  • You've already been to Paris, haven't you? (positive main clause, negative tag)
  • You've already been to Paris, have you not? (positive main clause, negative tag)

You will notice that in the second example there is no negative contraction (the negation is analytic) and the tag has three words.

Negative sentences usually take positive tags:

  • You have never been to Paris, have you? (negative main clause, positive tag)
  • You haven't been to Paris, have you? (negative main clause, positive tag)

So most tags in English are reverse-polarity tags. However, we can also have positive tags with positive sentences. Instead of being fairly neutral, these are said to be marked. In other words they give some extra effect, or imply some extra meaning:

  • You're over 21, are you? (positive main clause, positive tag)

The sentence above can be read as being challenging, as if the speaker does not believe the addressee. This might be an exchange at the entrance to a night club—in which case we might expect the next sentence to be "Can I see your ID, please?"

In contrast, negative sentences with negative tags are widely considered to be ungrammatical:

  • %You haven't been to Paris, haven't you? (ungrammatical)
  • %You haven't been to Paris, have you not? (ungrammatical)

However, you will notice that the examples above are marked with a % symbol instead of the usual *. The reason for this is that such tags are considered grammatical by a minority of users.

For the majority of speakers, who find negative tags on negative clauses ungrammatical, this is a useful and well known test to see if a clause has negative or positive polarity. So we can see this contrast with the following pair of sentences:

  • Few people have ever seen it, have they?
  • *Few people have ever seen it, haven't they? (ungrammatical for such speakers)

The determiner few is a negative word and makes the main clauses above negative. The negative tag in the second example is therefore unacceptable. We can show that this isn't true for the determiner a few, which has a positive meaning:

  • A few people have seen it, have they?
  • A few people have seen it, haven't they?

The fist example with a positive tag sounds marked. The speaker sounds surprised. The negative tag sounds quite normal.

However, such tests won't work of course with speakers for whom negative-negative tags are grammatical.

Can we invoke the rule of the majority here? Can we say that because most speakers of standard English won't accept negative-negative tags, that they are ungrammatical? The answer is no. A significant proportion of speakers of standard English have no such rule forbidding negative-negative tags. Their English is just as English and just as grammatical as anyone else's. So, instead, the strongest thing we can say is that negative-negative tags (technically 'negative constant polarity tags') are ungrammatical for a majority of speakers.

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  • 2
    +1 for a good, thorough answer. If you do happen to know whether negative–negative tags are particularly associated with Northern English dialects, that would be a useful addition. Incidentally, I find negative–negative tags ungrammatical in general, but with “Few people have ever seen it”, I find positive and negative tags equally (un)likely. They’re both clumsy, but neither is really ungrammatical to me. The only tag I can add to that question that doesn’t sound clumsy are polarity-neutral ones like innit, right, yeah. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '17 at 10:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I just realised that I'd left an NPI (ever) in those sentences when I cut and pasted them. This will have made them a bit squiffy. How do you find those sentences now? Do you still have the same judgements there? I'm afraid I don't know if this is a feature of Northern Englishes. From the OP's comment, I take it he's guessing that that's the reason his spouse finds the sentence ok - but this doesn't necessarily have to be the case because it's true of standard English speakers too ... – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 16 '17 at 10:45
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    With a few I find both perfectly natural; with few I find both perfectly unnatural, regardless of whether there’s an ever or not. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '17 at 10:49
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Ah, I see ... Interesting. Would it help if there was a But at the beginning of them? "But few people have ever seen them, have they?" for example. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Apr 16 '17 at 10:50
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    “You know jack shit” is perhaps borderline grammatical, but “You know shit” definitely isn’t to me (except in a literal sense). “Few people know shit” can to me only be a comment on the state of coprology. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 16 '17 at 11:06

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