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In one of my grammar books (namely, MyGrammarLab Intermediate by Pearson), I've come across this short dialogue:

  • You aren't still getting those headaches, are you?
  • Yes, I am. The doctor says they're caused by stress.

This dialogue seems quite confusing to me because of the word 'still'. I would write it this way:

  • You are still getting those headaches, aren't you?
  • Yes, I am. The doctor says they're caused by stress.

"You aren't getting those headaches yet, are you?" sounds OK to me. But the same questions with "still" sounds confusing, because "still" isn't the same as "yet", is it? "You aren't still getting those headaches, are you?", to me, sounds as if the 2nd person (who is being asked) wants to have headaches, but still hasn't been able to "have them in his head" (= He doesn't still have them, although he's keen for them to happen), which is really strange.

Could you help me, please?

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    Look up the meaning of the word "still", the speaker is expressing their surprise/shock or concern about the listener's health. Either the listener's headaches have stopped altogether or he or she continues (still) to suffer from them.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 3, 2021 at 7:47
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    "You are still... aren't you?" assumes that the addressee is still having headaches. "You aren't still... are you?", as Mari-Lou says, expresses surprise on learning that they are. To have the sense that you mention (wanting to have headaches), it would have to be "You still aren't, are you?" Aug 3, 2021 at 8:33
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2 Answers 2

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The standard usage depends on the questioner's expectation.

If the questioner does not expect for the respondent to still be having the headaches, then You aren't still getting those headaches, are you? aligns with the standard way to phrase the question, since it's a question that ostensibly expects the answer No.

If the questioner does expect that the respondent is still having the headaches, then You are still getting those headaches, aren't you? aligns with the standard way to phrase the query, since the question ostensibly expects the answer Yes.

If the questioner is expressing no expectation either way, then the question might be phrased Are you still getting those headaches?

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  • The choice is, as you say, dictated by pragmatics. But it can be even more subtle. A desire to show empathy / a non-patronising attitude / that the addressee's problem isn't the talk of the town ... often comes into play. And 'You are still getting those headaches, aren't you?' often leads to a firm (but not dismissive) recommendation. Aug 3, 2021 at 11:16
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You can recast these sorts of questions to simpler forms and then build them back up for a more nuanced understanding of the author’s (or speaker’s) intent.

The most basic form is:

  • Do you have a headache?

This can be recast in the form of a statement with a comma and a tagged question. The expected answer follows the polarity of the statement:

  • You have a headache, don’t you? (Expects “yes”)
  • You don’t have a headache, do you? (Expects “no”)

These ask about a point in time. Headaches a week ago are irrelevant to both the question and the answer. Even adding the qualifier “those” just brings in headaches of the past as a reference point, not something of current concern.

  • Do you have those headaches?

The word “still” communicates concern about the past headaches. The concern is whether the headaches have continued to the present. Note that “still” here refers only to continuity in time. It doesn’t automatically communicate desire or preference:

  • Do you still have those headaches?

Or alternatively,

  • Are you still getting those headaches?

Now, this is (grammatically) a neutral question. There is no grammatical expectation whether the answer should be “yes” or “no”. To insert that expectation, you can convert it into a tagged question. As we saw earlier, you have a choice of whether to phrase it to expect a “yes” or “no” answer. If the speaker hopes that the other person has recovered, the question would be phrased with a negative statement part:

  • You aren’t still getting those headaches, are you?

This gets us back to the form of your original quote.

If you used “yet” instead, you are setting up an expectation that the respondent get headaches. This comes across clearly in the neutral form of the question:

  • Are you getting those headaches yet?

This would communicate a rather unkind attitude.

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