I have a question about question tags.

That is our new teacher, isn't it?


That is our new teacher, isn't he?

Which one is correct?

  • 2
    I'd refer back to the dummy element That rather than the delayed subject our new teacher. So I'd use 'it' here. // The French are almost always happy with 'isn't it?' ('nest-ce pas?'), and there's a move to do the same in English, but I wouldn't use 'He's our new teacher, isn't it?' quite yet. And 'He's our new teacher, innit?' will take rather longer for me to accept as standard. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 20 '17 at 10:24
  • In actuality, “That’s our new teacher, right?” avoids all the awkwardness. Which is of course short for “Isn’t that right” – Jim Nov 19 '17 at 16:00
  • It would be more articulate to say, "Isn't he our new teacher?" or "Is that our new teacher?" – Bread Mar 19 '18 at 20:41

I think that 'it' is not referring to the teacher.

'That is the new teacher, is it not (true) ?'

'That is the new teacher, is it not (a fact) ?'

'That is the new teacher, is it not (the case) ?

I believe it is quite correct to say 'it' because the 'it' is not a person but refers back to the fact that 'that is the teacher'.


My take here is that this is a case of IDENTIFYING a person, in which case it's standard to use third person gender neutral forms, so "isn't it?" is right. The dummy element you mentioned Edwin is not relevant imho.

Identifying - Looking at a photo of a crowd: "THAT's John, isn't IT?"" - On the phone: "Is THAT Sue?" "Yes. THAT's Lisa, isn't IT?"" - In the scenario described and other similar situations: "Evening everyone, great party! THIS is my friend Maria."

An exception is introducing OURSELVES face to face when we say: "Hi, I'm Mark. Are you Dave?". Or "You're Dave, aren't you?"

  • "Is he the one who punched you?" would not work with it, even though it's also a case of identifying a person. Similarly, "who punched you" is correct, but "what punched you?" is not (when referring to a person). You're getting confused with the gender neutral "they" (which is contested by some grammarians, last I heard). – Flater Oct 20 '17 at 13:27
  • "Is that the boy who punched you?" "Yes, it is" - also extremely common of not more so. – Mark E K Oct 20 '17 at 13:32
  • @Flater: You'd say: "Who's on the phone?" "It's our new teacher." And not "Who's on the phone?" "He's our new teacher." So it is perfectly correct here. You're right ... not all cases of identification take it. But this one does. – Peter Shor Oct 20 '17 at 13:32
  • I noticed that we do this - switching to it / this / that for identifying - learning another language where they don't. But clearly there are exceptions, elastic 'rules'. – Mark E K Oct 20 '17 at 13:34
  • @MarkEK: All examples you use in the comments use "it" in the answer, not in the question. The current topic is about the usage of "it" in a question, not in an answer. "Is it calling you?" is in no way correct, but "Are they calling you?" is correct. – Flater Oct 20 '17 at 13:39

It/he should (usually) match the main subject.

That is our new teacher, isn't he?

Is incorrect. It should be:

He is our new teacher, isn't he?
That man is our new teacher, isn't he?

The (second) "he" refers to the subject ("he"/"that man").

That is our new teacher, isn't it?

This is correct, since "it" refers to "that".

There is an exception to this.

He is our new teacher, isn't it?

"isn't it?" is also considered correct, especially in UK English (where it often gets shortened to "innit?"). I'm doubtful whether this is considered correct in US English. I suspect that it isn't.

Essentially, "it" is not referring to "he", it is referring to the assumption (which the question is trying to confirm).

This becomes easier to understand if we use a plural subject:

The students are all going to graduate, aren't they?

"They" refers to "the students".

The students are all going to graduate, isn't it?

Note that "the students" is plural, but "it" is singular. "It" cannot possibly be referring to "the students".

"It" refers to the assumption (that all students are going to graduate). It's essentially the same as:

[I assume that] The students are all going to graduate. Is this assumption correct?

Note that I refer to an assumption, but I could've referred to it as an expectation, inference, understanding, ... the exact word to use here isn't relevant, it depends on the context. The important part is that the assumption/expectation/inference/... is not a person.

  • 1
    But in answer to "who's at the door", you'd say "it's the mailman" and not "he's the mailman." The use of it for identification is much broader than just confirming the assumption of the speaker. (And using isn't it as a general question tag is a very British thing to do. Americans wouldn't say He's our new teacher, innit. I don't really know whether people would say it in the U.K., either, but my impression is that they might.) – Peter Shor Oct 20 '17 at 13:38
  • @PeterShor: You're using "it" in the answer, not in the question. That changes things. – Flater Oct 20 '17 at 13:46
  • No it doesn't. Suppose you hear somebody outside your door making noise. Wouldn't you ask "that's the mailman, isn't it?" – Peter Shor Oct 20 '17 at 13:48
  • @PeterShor: Yes, but how does that invalidate my answer? I agreed that "isn't it?" is correct to use, but "it" simply doesn't refer to "the mailman". In essence, you're not asking "is [the mailman correct]?", you're asking "is [my assumption correct]?" – Flater Oct 20 '17 at 13:50
  • No. You're asking: is the cause of the noise the mailman? You wouldn't say "They shoot horses, isn't it?" Even though in that question, you're also asking whether your assumption is correct. – Peter Shor Oct 20 '17 at 13:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.