Tag questions are those where a statement is made, followed by a short question, inviting the listener to either agree or disagree with the initial statement e.g. In the following tag question, ‘Your shoes are red, aren’t they?’, the first part i.e. ‘Your shoes are red’ is the statement and ‘aren’t they?’ is the tag that invites the listener to either agree or disagree with the statement.
Graffam Walker (2013) in the Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective states that in order to process tag questions, the listener has to perform 7 steps of reasoning. They are as follows:
judging whether the statement part of the question is true or not
translating the tag from its elliptical form to a full form and understanding that the word ‘it’ in the tag is a substitute for the entire original question
tracking what pronouns in the question and in the tag refer to (‘She looks nice, doesn’t she?’)
learning that a positive statement takes a negative tag (‘It is raining, isn’t it?’) and vice versa (‘It isn’t raining, is it?’)
learning that the negative in a tag does not affect the main clause (‘It is raining, isn’t it/ is it not?’ does not mean that it is not raining)
understanding that the tag expresses the point of view of the speaker, and does not necessarily mean that the statement is true
learning how to meet or counter that point of view.
The verbal reasoning skills involved in understanding tag questions are linguistically sophisticated and complex. In a highly stressful situation (e.g. Court) many vulnerable witnesses and defendants find it extremely difficult to fully understand and respond to the psychological and linguistic elements exerted by tag questions.
Please see examples of tag questions below and how to reword them reducing the linguistic and emotional load.
Tag question Reworded: linguistically easier question
You hit him, didn't you? Did you hit him? (elicits yes/no answer)
OR He says you hit him...you say you didn't. What
really happened? (Puts both sides of the case and
asks the individual to select one; linguistically less
challenging than a tag)
You weren’t ever afraid of him, Were you ever afraid of him? (elicits yes/no
were you? answer)
You went home after that, Did you go home after that? (elicits yes/no
didn’t you? answer)
OR Where did you go after that? (elicits detail)