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In this clip (2:28) of Downton Abbey you can hear Sybil saying:

Then we must be ready by tomorrow, must we?

Now, if she's using a tag question, why isn't she forming the negative?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding her, but I'm pretty confident she says must and not mustn't.

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    Compare and consider 1) You're coming with me, aren't you? and 2) You're coming with me, are you? The first version is a standard tag question usage, expecting a positive confirmatory response. The second version is more of a "rhetorical" question (speaker takes it for granted the answer will be "Yes"), but it usually implies sullen resentment or similar. The specific example here is similar to saying (in a resigned voice) Oh well - I suppose that means we'll have to be ready by tomorrow (even though it's hasty / inconvenient). Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 17:37
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    @FumbleFingers - she swallows the "n't". the more I listen to it, the more that becomes clear. the YT auto-subs just can't pick it up. I was expecting some kind of 'disagreement/resentment' but there's none apparent. I fixed the timestamp in the link, btw. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 17:45
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    @DoneWithThis.: Yes, it's exactly the context I described in my second comment (and I've just listened to the clip - it's 100% certain she says ...mustn't we?). And obviously the speaker isn't even a servant at all - she's one of the ladies of the house, "talking down" to a servant who's expressed concern about how inconvenient the timing is. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 17:50
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    There's no doubt that she says "mustn't we", which is the correct tag.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 18:04
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    I've listened to this several times. She definitely says "mustn't we". The subtitles are wrong. They're auto generated. Probably didn't just pick it up properly.
    – Billy Kerr
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 19:00

3 Answers 3

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English tag questions have so many forms, I doubt I could do the topic true justice in an answer. Essentially, as written, this is a 'unbalanced tag question'.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tag_question

In this particular instance it does feel like the 'wrong' choice. I would have expected "mustn't we?" rather than "must we?"

Having listened to it a few times, & I'm now convinced she actually does say "mustn't we?" she just clips it tight, almost entirely burying the "n't". The guesswork captioning gets it wrong, but in this instance, I'm not truly surprised.

In the video, the entire conversation is positive. As written in your question, you would expect some form of disagreement/resentment which would make the unbalanced form valid.
I have to admit I don't know the show, so I don't know the relationship the characters have, but watching the clip validates that she does in fact say "mustn't".

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    It's extremely common for native speakers to nearly completely remove the n't in this way. This is a good video on it, for those that enjoy such things: youtube.com/watch?v=qlbGtEg68x4 Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 16:26
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Compare and consider...

  1. You're coming with me, aren't you?
  2. You're coming with me, are you?

...where #1 is a "standard" tag question usage, expecting a positive confirmatory response. #2 is more of a "rhetorical" question - the speaker knows the answer is "Yes", but using the "non-reversed" tag format often implies sullen resentment or disbelief (especially when addressed to someone of lower social status; speaker doesn't really want addressee "tagging along" :)

OP's specific example is mistranscribed. It unquestionably is the standard negated tag format, as would easily be heard by almost all native speakers. Since the speaker is one of the ladies of the house, addressing a servant, the non-negated tag question would make no sense.

In short, it would be possible for OP's tag question not to be negated, but that would probably only be "natural" if the roles of the two conversants (mistress addressing servant) were reversed. If the servant said the line as transcribed, she'd just be expressing concern about how inconvenient the timing is (insufficient notice for all the packing and preparations required). But in fact that's not what happened.

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    +1. I would just add that non-reverted tags as in #2 can also be less rhetorical and more of a display of disbelief (“Oh, he’s your cousin, is he? Well, you certainly treat your ‘cousins’ well…”), or even a preparation to overrule (“Oh, you’re coming with me, are you? Yeah, I don’t think so; you’re not going anywhere!”). There’s a healthy dose of sarcasm inherent in the non-inverted forms. Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 9:01
  • Well, I did say using the "non-reversed" tag format often implies sullen resentment or disbelief - or "dismissal", as in So you think you can beat me in a fair fight, do you? Step outside and let's see! Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:25
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    Ah, I’d missed “or disbelief” first time around! Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 10:34
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The intent is clearly "mustn't we", and I'm sure that was the script.

"... must we" in that context makes no sense, and no native speaker would say that. This actress is a native speaker, so she either swallowed the "n't" part of the word, or flubbed the line.

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  • Apologies for the unwarranted downvote (now reversed). I believed the OP's claim that the speaker had said ...must we? Note that the positive tag question would be perfectly valid if the two conversants were reversed, as per my comments under the question. But once I actually checked the link, it was obviously just a mistranscription. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 17:54

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