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Monday, May 23, 2011

You know what tag questions are, right?

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe's Erin McKean, founder of Wordnik.com, presented a fascinating examination of tag questions, "those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence." As speakers, we use tag questions unconsciously; as listeners, we rarely realize when someone is asking us one. Nonetheless, tag questions, small waves in the vast ocean of spoken language, play an important part in communication.

McKean notes that linguists have identified two kinds of tag questions: modal and affective. Modal tag questions seek information or confirmation: We're going to the movies on Tuesday, right? He should really change his hairdo, shouldn't he? Affective tag questions seek to soften the meaning of a statement or convey an emotional connection to an audience: This is how you change a light bulb; simple, right? That was a horrible movie, no? Linguists have not only categorized tag questions but also studied their use. McKean presents the findings from some interesting investigations: 

Culture. Modal tag questions tend to be the same across regions and cultures, while affective tags vary across regions and cultures. Consider that in the South you're likely to hear "you hear?" while in Canada you're likely to hear "eh?" at the end of the same sentence. 

Gender. Researchers used to identify tag questions with femininity, but they have since discovered that men use tag questions as frequently as—or in some cases, more frequently than—women. 

Power. "Powerful" speakers, "people who are in charge of making sure conversations go well," like teachers and doctors, tend to use tag questions more than other types of speakers.

McKean notes that tag questions are so ubiquitous because they are efficient. They help us connect quickly and avoid misunderstandings, and they "grease the conversational wheels." Interesting, right?

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