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The following sentences are from Cambridge Dictionary along with the explanation:

In questions in informal conversation, we can leave out a subject pronoun, or a subject pronoun and an accompanying auxiliary verb, when we use a question tag:

[He] Gave up his job, did he? I thought he would.

[You] Wrote to the local newspaper, did you? Good idea.


When I read those sentences, I noticed that question tags seem unusual, which would be:

[He] Gave up his job, didn't he? I thought he would.

[You] Wrote to the local newspaper, didn't you? Good idea.

Is it simply because the sentences are informal?

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    One of the things missing in writing is that the spoken intonation would vary with the two versions. Feb 29 at 20:26
  • I'm finding a lot of resources when googling that say that tag questions must be the opposite positivity/negativity of the sentence, which is incorrect. I wonder how this myth got into the discourse? Good question that should have an interesting answer.
    – YonKuma
    Feb 29 at 20:34
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    We can use a positive statement followed by a positive question tag when we want to express emotion such as disbelief, suspicion, shock, anger, sarcasm, strong interest, etc. The two examples given from Cambridge Dictionary are in accord with that. Feb 29 at 21:01
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    Combining the wisdom of Bonner and Harvey, the did he and did you examples are not questions, but provocations, with tone of voice clarifying it. They both mean "Oh yeah?!" Feb 29 at 21:20
  • It's more or less the same as saying "Oh, so he gave up his job?" Or "Oh, so you wrote to the local newspaper?" It's basicaly saying that this is news to you.
    – TonyK
    Mar 1 at 15:51

2 Answers 2

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One of the funny things about these kinds of questions is you can often put them in the positive or negative with the same (or nearly the same) intent and the same result.

Did you come by here yesterday? / Didn't you come by here yesterday?

Both ask the same essential question. But the first one is more "openly questioning," while the second implies an answer and seeks to confirm it. "Untangled," the second is "You came by here yesterday, did you not?"

As question tags, your two versions also get slightly different tones. The first ones, with "did," could survive as questions with the "tag" shifted back to the beginning of the sentence and the "did" deleted:

He gave up his job?

This shows that it's not a "pure question," as we might have if the "did" were present. Rather, it's something you would say to echo a piece of surprising news and ask for confirmation: "He gave up his job." "He gave up his job?!"

The "question tag" version doesn't communicate quite as much surprise, but it fills a similar role, responding to news (whether delivered or implied). I might meet you and observe "Got a haircut, did you?" You didn't tell me you did, but it evident. Rhetorically, I might not need confirmation for something so obvious; this "positive question-tag" version is pretty much the same as a simple observation "You got a haircut," but perhaps more interesting conversationally, as it invites a response.

The "negative question tags" are more at home as a challenge. "You're the one who started the fire, aren't you? Admit it!" I don't actually know that you did; I'm not responding to news; I'm genuinely asking a question (even if also strongly reinforcing one possible answer). Even in a friendlier challenge, "You cut your hair, didn't you?", this implies that the haircut is less obvious and I do actually have to ask.

I have a hard time communicating intonation in writing but:

You cut your hair, did you? —the tag "did you" is lower in pitch than the earlier parts of the sentence, and rises toward the end.
You cut your hair, didn't you? —the tag is emphasized; "did-" is as high in pitch as the highest earlier point in the sentence; it falls toward the end.

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  • Your mother's a very kind woman, isn't she? I don't see any challenge there. Mar 1 at 9:27
  • @ReinstateMonica3167040 - there's no 'asking to be sure' in such a question - it is purely formulaic. Mar 1 at 23:37
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    @MichaelHarvey In fact, for this example, “Your mother’s a very kind woman, is she?” is more likely to be challenging. I’ll have to rethink it. One thing’s clear: the positive version is a response, while the negative doesn’t have to be. Mar 2 at 0:09
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Assertion followed by a question:

You can hold your liquor, can't you? We've got to get these guys drunk at lunch so they overlook the fine print in the contract and sign it.

The questioner wants to know if you can hold your liquor.

So, you can hold your liquor, can you? We will see about that.

The questioner is about to challenge you to a drinking contest.

Even at its most benign and gentle, the positive-spin question is still something of a challenge, a pushing-back against the assertion:

Kindergarten-age granddaughter: Grandpop, I have some advice for you.

Grandfather: You have some advice for me, do you? Let's hear this advice.

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