Questions and tags

This page shows how to ask questions in English, together with a common informal usage: the tag question.

Yes-No questions

To ask a question in English you must usually use one of the auxiliary verbs (be, do, have) or a modal verb such as can, will, may. If you are expecting a yes/no answer, then the question starts with the auxiliary or modal. Here are some examples:

  • Is she Japanese?
  • Do you like German food?
  • Can you play chess?
  • Have you seen Miho?
  • Must I go to school tomorrow?
  • Did you know the answer?
  • Is she coming to your party?
  • Will you be able to help me?

Question-word questions

If you want more information than a simple yes/no answer, you must ask a question starting with one of the following question words: what, where, when, why, which, who(m), whose, how. In this kind of question you also normally use an auxiliary or modal:

  • What did you say?
  • Where does she live?
  • When can you play chess?
  • Why must I go to school tomorrow?
  • Which book have you borrowed?
  • Who has taken my calculator?
  • Whose bag is this?
  • How did you know the answer?

* Note that questions starting with the question words what/who/whose do not need an auxiliary verb in the simple present or past. For example: What happened? Who knows the answer? Whose parents came to Open Day?

The questions what, which, whose are often followed by a noun (before the auxiliary/modal). The question how is often followed by an adjective. Look at the following examples:

  • What time must we be there?
  • What kind of music do you listen to?
  • Which painting do you like the best?
  • Whose parents are coming to the meeting tomorrow?
  • How long have you lived in Germany?
  • How much money do you have?
  • How far is your house from the school?

Questions with prepositions

We quite often want to ask a question containing a preposition. In spoken English the preposition is usually put at the end of the question, as in the following examples?

  • Who did you go to the party with?
  • Who are you talking to?
  • What are you talking about?
  • Where is Miho from?
  • What did you say that for?
  • What kind of place do you live in?

Note: It is possible to begin questions with the preposition. ESL students should avoid this, however. Even in written English such questions sound too formal: With whom did you go to the party? From where is Miho?

Question tags

A special type of question is the tag that English speakers put at the end of many statements. The tags in the following sentences are shown in red:

  • It's a lovely day today, isn't it?
  • You live in Frankfurt, don't you?
  • Miho can't speak German, can she?
  • You haven't seen Miho, have you?
  • His parents are very old, aren't they?
  • You will remember to call me, won't you?

Tags are very common in spoken English, and have many functions. @ One of the common functions of tag questions is to start a conversation or to help keep it going. ~ The two basic rules about tag questions are:

Rule 1: If the statement is negative, the tag must be positive. If the statement is positive the tag must be negative.

  • You don't like me, do you?
  • You won't tell him my secret, will you?
  • He doesn't speak German, does he?
  • You're coming to my party, aren't you?
  • She's really good at chess, isn't she?
  • You haven't done your homework, have you?

Rule 2: The tense of the tag is determined by the tense of the auxiliary/modal verb of the statement that precedes it. If the statement does not use an auxiliary/modal (i.e. it is in the present or past simple tense), then the auxiliary to do must be used.

  • She comes from Korea, doesn't she?
  • You like heavy metal music, don't you?
  • He got top grade in the mathematics test, didn't he?
  • I really messed up, didn't I?

Question tag intonation

A problem with tags is getting the intonation right. Basically, it depends whether or not you are expecting an answer to your question. Look at these two examples:

  • He's from Italy, isn't he? (flat or falling intonation - short pause before the tag - more a statement than a question, not really expecting an answer )
  • He's from Italy, isn't he? (sharply rising intonation - longer pause before the tag - a question expecting an answer )

More resources

Go to a page outlining more difficulties of question tags in English.

There are several interactive quizzes on questions and tags in the Other grammar drop-down menu on the Grammar index.