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Question tags — “did you” vs. “didn’t you”

  1. People can hardly motivate themselves now, can they?
  2. People can hardly motivate themselves now, can't they?

Number 1 is the correct answer. However, usage of can't they in number 2 can also be correct as it takes the tag question format but due to now being used in the sentence, it is wrong.

My question is, I am too sure that number 1 is the correct answer, but I am not sure about the above explanation. How true this holds? And why the addition of the adverb "now" makes number 2 incorrect?

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    It's not the "now", it's the "hardly", that makes the difference. – Peter Shor Jan 4 '13 at 17:49
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    However, it is the hardly which makes the difference. – Andrew Leach Jan 4 '13 at 17:55
  • List of NPIs and Negative Triggers here; freshman grammar problem on tag questions here. – John Lawler Jan 4 '13 at 19:51
  • @John Lawler: Any chance of posting the "answers" to those freshman grammar problems? I can't think of any credible tag question for "She may not like that, xxxx?", and with "Let us/Let's go to the game, xxxx?" I can't see how the contracted form let's changes anything - I come up with shall we? for both. – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '13 at 21:55
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    They were invited to "Comment on any irregularities or difficulties." The rule is simple, in its general form, but there turn out to be devils in the details, and the problem was designed to get them to think about how those details could be captured in the rule. Feel free to post your own answer; one page maximum. – John Lawler Jan 4 '13 at 22:24

As you say, the correct form is

People can hardly motivate themselves now, can they?

The other sentence with can't in the question tag is not correct. Where the question tag indicates that the speaker is expecting the hearer to agree, the tag verb negates the main verb.

People can't motivate themselves now, can they?

This indicates an opinion on the part of the speaker, and anticipates agreement.

The reason that the correct tag for the first sentence appears to repeat the main verb is the use of hardly. Hardly is a Negative Polarity Indicator — almost as strong as not — and therefore the tag verb has to be positive.

To use can't as the tag verb, the first statement has to be positive: "People can really motivate themselves now, can't they?" Again, this assumes that the speaker expects to be agreed with.

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    I don't think this is the correct punctuation. I think the now should come after the comma, not before it. Probably doesn't matter much ... or does it? – Robusto Jan 4 '13 at 19:16
  • I don't think it changes the substance of the answer and the effect of NPIs. I'm happy with now on the left of the comma. – Andrew Leach Jan 4 '13 at 19:19
  • @Robusto: I agree. This is the same now as in: At last Aeneas and Dido made love in that cave. Now, she wasn't a virgin, but this still made a deep impression upon her. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 4 '13 at 19:20
  • @Cerberus Agree with whom? The now here is "at the moment", or "these days". – Andrew Leach Jan 4 '13 at 19:22
  • In "You don't want to come now, do you?", the implication is that something about the situation has just changed, and that's the reason the speaker expects that you don't want to come. In "You don't want to come, now do you?", the word "now" means something like "answer me now". The speaker might always have believed that you didn't want to come - he's just saying it's time for you to admit it. – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '13 at 19:24

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