Questions and tags

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


The grammatical term for sentences that end with a question mark is interrogative. Interrogatives are one of the four main sentence types, along with declaratives, imperatives and exclamatives.

The two most common type of interrogative are the yes/no questions and the questions starting with a question word. These are known as wh- questions.

Yes-No questions

To ask a yes/no question in English you must usually start the sentence with one of the auxiliary verbs (be, do, have) or one of the modal verbs such as can, will, may. (Note that modal verbs are themselves classified as auxiliary verbs in most modern grammars.)

The answer will often start with yes, no or maybe. But such a one-word answer is usually considered too abrupt or impolite, so it is common to repeat the auxiliary. For example, Have you fed the cat? - Yes, I have.

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?

An alternative way to ask a yes/no question is to use a declarative sentence and end it with right? For example, She's Japanese, right? Another alternative is to end the declarative sentence with a question tag. See the section below.

Wh- questions

If you want more information than a simple yes/no/maybe answer, you must ask a wh- question starting with one of the following question words: what, which, who(m), whose (interrogative pronouns) or where, when, why, how (interrogative adverbs). 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 an interrogative pronoun what/which/who/whom/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.