"He is happy, isn't he?"

If you did not use the contraction isn't he, in the question above, would the correct sentence be:

  1. "He is happy, is he not?"
  2. "He is happy, is not he?"

Sentence #1 seems to have to have same meaning as the above question but does not become the subject complement of he? Is #2 the grammatical equivalent albeit archaic or uncommon in modern English?

  • is this homework? – mplungjan May 10 '12 at 13:04
  • Not homework, just a topic that came up in the teacher's lounge of a Korean after-school English academy. Someone brought up "is not he" and I started second-guessing my own English. – J.H. Chang May 16 '12 at 5:10

In my part of England (Yorkshire) we sometimes use "is he not?", but not as a tag question as in your example.

"Is not he" is a definite no-no.

The reason is that you are looking at a tag question, so you have the subject-verb inversion, but contractions such as isn't or wasn't can't invert.

  • 2
    Full tags such as 'is not he?' were known in the past. – Barrie England May 10 '12 at 13:55
  • @BarrieEngland. Out of curiosity, have you got a reference for “is not he“ tags, or is it something that you’ve come across yourself on occasion? Thanks! – Daniel Harbour Aug 5 '12 at 21:04
  • 1
    @DanielHarbour: Well, here’s just one example from Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: ‘One hears sometimes of a child being “the picture of health;” now, Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself. Mr. Knightley, is not she?’ What isn’t clear is whether this is what people at the time actually said, or whether it was the convention to write in full forms that were contracted in speech. – Barrie England Aug 6 '12 at 6:52
  • @BarrieEngland Thanks very much for that. Your questions are on the mark. I’ll see if I know anyone who knows... – Daniel Harbour Aug 9 '12 at 17:13

The sentence "He is happy, is he not? is grammatically correct, although rather infrequent in usage.

Perhaps, the only similar tag question which you are likely to find in everyday situations is the one which presents the verb to be in the first person singular (for example, "I am pretty, am I not?", as "aren't I? may sound a bit awkward).

Your second example is on the contrary not acceptable.

As Roaring Fish said before me, you do not change the structure verb-subject in a question, so the negative "not" needs to come after the subject if it is separated from the verb form, whereas it comes before the subject when it is contracted.

  • 1
    In what version of English does I am pretty, aren't I sound awkward? Or sound more awkward than I am pretty, am I not? To me the aren't I version sounds less awkward, but then I am not a native speaker. – mplungjan May 16 '12 at 6:14
  • @mplungjan. Perhaps "awkward" is not the best adjective to describe what I meant. As I wrote, both expressions are perfectly grammatical; normally people would use the contracted verb-negative form, whereas you would find the subject "I" and the verb "aren't" in question tags only. However, question tags aren't always used in full, so you may happen to hear people say "right?" or similar expressions, and the question tag for my above example may even become "ain't I?", which is widely used but not exactly what textbooks would teach. P.S. I'm not a native speaker either. – Paola May 16 '12 at 15:16
  • @mplungian I aren’t too sure about all this. – tchrist Aug 5 '12 at 20:07
  • "Aren't I" at the end of a sentence is commonly used to ask for allayment of insecurities about one's characteristics, condition, or circumstances. Examples: "Doctor, I'm cured, aren't I?" "I'm a shoe in for the job, aren't I?" "I am normal, aren't I?" – Pantalones Aug 6 '12 at 5:01
  • @Pantalones. I suppose it could also be used in a more jokingly way, such as "I'm the sexiest person in the world, aren't I?" or "I'm always right, aren't I?" – Paola Aug 6 '12 at 7:49

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