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The Word

Amirite?

Learning to love 'tag questions'

By Erin McKean
May 15, 2011

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Some days it seems that the most common kind of understanding is misunderstanding: Every conversation — not to mention each e-mail, IM, or text message — is rife with opportunities for crossed circuits and hurt feelings. There’s no end of advice about how to avoid miscommunication: Keep things simple. Take your time. Be aware of cultural differences. But missing from all these communication-helper lists is a little linguistic tic that most people use every day: the tag question.

You know what tag questions are, don’t you? Tag questions are those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence — like that don’t you? — that grease the conversational wheels. Linguists see these questions as coming in two different flavors: the kind that ask for information or confirmation (“you’ve got the tickets, right?”), called “modal” tags, and the kind that try to connect with the hearer’s feelings, softening a statement or opening the door for more conversation, called “affective” tags (“that was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it?”).

Since they help keep information flowing, you’d think that tag questions would be appreciated for their importance to the language, or at least held up as a useful communications tool, but in fact, they’re almost ignored, and occasionally even mocked.

This may be in part because tag questions have been identified as a “female” speech pattern. The linguist Robin Lakoff, in her landmark 1975 book “Language and Woman’s Place,” listed tag questions alongside qualifiers (kind of), weak expletives (oh fudge!), and empty adjectives (fabulous, lovely) as tools used by women to soften or weaken their statements. Based on her own impressions, Lakoff associated tag questions with “a desire for confirmation or approval which signals a lack of self-confidence in the speaker.”

But as it turns out, that is only one view of the social aspect of tag questions. Studies done more recently have found that men use tag questions at least as often as women (one study found men using tag questions twice as often), and that men are more likely to use the supposedly-less-confident “ask for more information or confirmation” kind of tag questions. And the “softening” kind of tag question — the kind used to facilitate conversation — was identified less with gender than with power. It turns out that the people who are in charge of making sure conversations go well — “powerful” speakers, such as talk show hosts, doctors, and teachers — are the ones who tend to use affective tags.

When you look at what people actually use as tag questions, it turns out to be a fascinating and delightful corner of the language. The modal tag questions, the practical ones, tend to be very straightforward: We’re going to be late, aren’t we?; I should close this, shouldn’t I?; He knows where we’re going, doesn’t he? The affective tags, on the other hand, have a huge range of variation across regions and cultures. Many of us use a simple right? or OK?, or a slightly less simple you with me so far? In the South, you’re likely to hear you hear? (especially in the stereotypical “y’all come back now, y’hear?”). There’s the jokey geddit?, the Brit-tinged savvy?, the goodfellaish capisce?, and the Spanglish comprendo? Some are redolent of old-hipsterism — catch my drift? — and some are associated with urban culture, such as nahmsayin? or aight? Different varieties of English (and other languages) use tag questions, too: Canadians have eh?, Brits have innit?, and in Singaporean English, there’s the borrowed lah.

For a little question calling us to acknowledge shared understanding, some of these can draw surprisingly negative attention. For example, I know, right? — that is, “Yes, I’ve noticed that, too” — not only has a Facebook group dedicated to stamping it out, but a YouTube video as well. Those opposed to I know, right? seem to think that it’s illogical: If you know something, why are you asking for confirmation? But they’re overthinking it. Instead of being two separate statements “I am aware” + “do you agree?” I know, right? is really one quick emphatic statement of recognition and agreement — which is probably why it’s also sometimes written as all one word: inorite?

(Am I right? gets the same treatment — amirite? — especially in jokey contexts, where the feeling is more of a nightclub-comic rimshot than a conversational door-opener.)

There’s a reason that tag questions are so widespread, and so nearly unconscious for many speakers. They’re the conversational equivalent of “measure twice, cut once” — a simple way to check in and confirm that what we’ve just said is indeed what our listeners heard. When we’re all in agreement, we can let “OK?” and “you know?” pass over us — but when we’re not, they give us an opportunity — however rarely taken — to pipe up and admit that no, I don’t know what you’re saying, after all. Given that tag questions are both helpful and effortless, it may be time to amp up our use and show them a little respect...don’t you think?

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.