Tag question in english and its translation equivalence in vietnamese: a contrastive analysis

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Hồ Chí Minh City University Of Pedagogy

English Department

Class 4A

Course: English – Vietnamese Comparative Linguistics

Final essay



Student: Đỗ Phan Nhã An

Instructor: Nguyễn Ngọc Vũ


Tag Question In English And Its Translation Equivalence In Vietnamese: A Contrastive Analysis

Đỗ Phan Nhã An

Hồ Chí Minh City University Of Pedagogy


To human beings, it is very important to exchange information as well as impart knowledge or experience. This means that communication is an integral part of their lives; and speaking is the main form of communication. The reason for this is that speaking helps to exchange information quickly and that people can immediately ask for explanations, clarifications, or what they have not known if they need when they speak. Questions are very helpful in these situations. Because of their usefulness, people make a lot of questions during their conversations and use many kinds of questions basing on their purposes. Some kinds of question are not mainly used for seeking information, which is the main usage of questions. Tag question in English and its translation equivalence in Vietnamese are good examples of these kinds of question. Beside the common usage above, they have some similarities and differences also in forms as well as in uses. Therefore, Vietnamese are often confused or even misunderstand when they meet English Tag questions, especially when they give answers. English people also have the same difficulties when they meet the translation equivalences of Tag questions in Vietnamese. To point out the similarities and the differences between the two kinds of question mentioned above is the aim of this paper. In addition, teaching implications for them are also mentioned.

Definition And Category

What is Tag question? According to Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary the 7th edition, a tag question is: a phrase such as isn’t it? or don’t you? that you add to the end of a statement in order to turn it into a question or check that the statement is correct, as in You like mushrooms, don’t you? (Hornby, 2006, p.1190) Because of that definition, British grammarians generally prefer the term “question tag”. In another way, it can be guessed from the name that a tag question is a sentence having an additional word or phrase to be marked as a question. Considering a tag question a whole sentence is accepted in many English grammatical books and websites and is the way it is mentioned in this paper. Based on many sources, Tag question can be defined as a special grammatical structure in which a statement turns into a question when it is followed by an interrogative fragment called the “tag”.

Like to talk about its definition, it is problematic to talk about the category of Tag question. The reason is that there are different points of view on types of English questions. Lê (2004) noted in one of his work:

In the book “Ngữ pháp tiếng Anh” (English grammar) written by Bùi Ý and Vũ Thanh Phương, four kinds of question are mentioned. They are:

  1. General questions, kinds of question requiring the answer “yes” or “no” have affirmative and negative form

  2. Special questions are ones containing interrogative pronoun such as who, what, why…

  3. Alternative questions

  4. Questions-tags


In other works of English grammar, English questions are usually divided into three kinds:

  1. Yes-No questions

  2. Wh. questions

  3. Alternative questions

Among three kinds mentioned above, Yes-No questions have four subclasses. They are:

  1. Genuine Yes-No questions

  2. Tags questions

  3. Rhetorical questions

  4. Glide-up


It can be inferred from what aforementioned that Tag question is a rather small part of English question system. However, it plays an important role because of its high frequency of appearance. Likewise, Vietnamese people, in their daily lives, usually use its translation equivalence, which plays a rather small part in the Vietnamese complicated question system. Because of its complexion, it is better to discuss the Vietnamese question system in a broader topic and to focus on the Vietnamese translation equivalence of English Tag question in this paper. In Vietnamese grammar, it has no definition and is considered a branch of Genuine questions, shortly and usually called Questions. This kind of question serves the main purpose of question, requiring specific answers. As Cao (1991) wrote in his famous works “Tiếng Việt Sơ thảo ngữ pháp chức năng” (Vietnamese - The first draft of functional grammar), there are three “classical” types of question: General questions (Yes-No questions), Specific questions, and Alternative questions. Besides, there are some other questions: Metalinguistic questions opening with Có phải and ending with không?, its alterity, and questions ending with nhỉ, or nhé. (pp.212-216) Later, in the book “Ngữ pháp chức năng tiếng Việt” (Vietnamese functional grammar), these kinds of questions are considered members of General questions. (Hoàng, Nguyễn, Bùi, & Cao, pp.127-128) The translation equivalence of Tag question can be considered as the alterity of Metalinguistic questions. However, according to Lê (2004), it can be considered as a question marked by Có … không, phải không, which is a subclass of Alternative questions, together with Non Alternative questions, composing Genuine questions. (p.223)


In general, a tag question consists of two parts: a statement and a tag following it. For example:

You’re a student of English department, aren’t you?

Her father doesn’t work for this company, does he?

The features of and the forms used in Tag questions can be summarized as in two tables below:




S + V

V + S





Auxiliary or be form

Repeat auxiliary or be form

No auxiliary: present

Use does/do

No auxiliary: past

Use did

Noun phrase




this, that


these, those


(Raimes, 1998, p.33)




  1. Positive statement, negative tag
    Negative statement, positive tag

He’s a doctor, isn’t he?
She isn’t a doctor, is she?

  1. Statement with auxiliary or be form, same form in tag

He is a specialist, isn’t he?
He should tell the truth, shouldn’t he?

  1. Statement with no auxiliary of be form, form of do
    in tag

He concealed the truth, didn’t he?
She wants to know the truth, doesn’t she?

  1. Noun phrase as subject,
    pronoun in tag

The doctor is experienced, isn’t he?

  1. This, that, these, or those
    as subject, it or they
    in tag

This is problem, isn’t it?
Those are forceps, aren’t they?

  1. There in subject position,
    there in tag

There are moral issues here, aren’t there?

  1. Am as first or main verb in statement, aren’t in tag

I’m healthy, aren’t I?

  1. Will in statement,
    won’t in tag

You’ll help me, won’t you?

(Raimes, 1998, p.32)

It can be inferred from the two tables that all the problematic changes occur in the tags, not the statements. When a tag is added, the attention should be paid to those things: the negative and affirmative forms, the auxiliaries, and the subject in the statement.

Firstly, in a tag question, the negative form follows the affirmative form and vice versa:

Tom wants some cookies, doesn’t he?

Tom doesn’t want any cookies, does he?

The negation in statements is marked not only by “not” but also by some negative words such as: never, no, hardly, scarcely, etc. In these cases, the tags are in affirmative form:

She never goes to work late, does she?

It’s no good, is it?

However, this rule commonly is broken in reality. A lot people use “unbalanced tag question” or “same-way” tag question, in which both the statements and the tags are in the same form. It is common that non-negative tags are after affirmative statements. Swan (2000) suggested that these are often used as “attention signals” when the speakers want to response to what they have heard or learnt. For example:

So you’re getting married, are you? How nice!

So she thinks she’s going to become a doctor, does she? Well, well.

“Same-way” tag questions can also be use to ask whether speakers’ guess are correct:

Your mother is at home, is she?

This is the last bus, is it?

Sometimes, negative same-way tags are used by the British and they usually sound aggressive:

I see. You don’t like my cooking, don’t you?


So far, in all of the examples, the negative tags are reduced. It is the common usage, but people occasionally do not do that. In that case the word order in the tag changes: “not” move to after the pronoun:

You saw him, did you not?

Secondly, as in the tables, the auxiliaries and be form used in statements are repeated in the tags and if there are no auxiliaries in statements, do forms are used. Besides, there are some considerable cases. In “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language”:

The non-prototypical auxiliary ought is sometimes replaced by the synonymous should: You ought to have told them the whole truth, shouldn’t you?

The rules predict mayn’t it? as the informal reversed polarity tag for It may rain, but most speakers do not have the form mayn’t; there is no clearly established way of filling the gap: possibilities include mightn’t it?, won’t it?, the more formal may it not?, or structurally independent interrogative such as parenthetical don’t you think?, isn’t that so?, etc.

Do may be found as a variant of have in the tag to an anchor with have got: He’s got problems, doesn’t he? (which may be regarded as a blend of He’s got problems, hasn’t he? and He has problem, doesn’t he?)

Be + 3rd person pronoun can occur as tag to a verbless anchor: Lovely day, isn’t it?; Beautiful ship, isn’t she?

(Huddleston, 2002, p.894)

Finally, only pronouns and “there” are used in tags as mentioned above. When the subject in a statement is an indefinite pronoun, “it” or “they” is used: “it” is used for “nothing” and “everything”; “they” is used for “nobody, somebody, everybody” and “no one”. For example:

Nothing can be changed, can it?

Everybody is here, aren’t they?

In addition to three important issues above is the case when a tag comes after imperatives. Then, forms of ‘will, would, can, could” followed by the pronoun “you” are used to tell other people to do things. For example:

Close the door, would you?

Do sit down, won’t you?

Don’t forget to call me, won’t you?

Another thing should be taken into consideration is that some expressions allow a tag to be based on a subordinate clause complement. For instance, “I believe / guess …”, “It seems / appears …”; and so on (Huddleston, 2002, p.894). For instance:

I think he isn’t a good guy, is he?

It seems we have made a serious mistake, haven’t we?

There are a lot of rules to obey when making a tag question in English while it is simpler to make its translation equivalence in Vietnamese. Generally, it has an item following a statement as in the structure below:

Statement + hả / (có) phải (vậy) không / đúng không / (có) được không / etc.?

At this point, it is similar to the formation of English Tag questions. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to pay much attention to whether the statement in affirmative or negative form, or the subject … The only thing needs focusing is the item added. Which item should be used is dependent upon the purposes of the speakers. Items like: có phải không, đúng không, hả, nhỉ, etc are used when asking for information or confirmations. For example:

Ba về rồi hả?

(Father has come home, hasn’t he?)

Ba chưa về ư?

(Father hasn’t come home, has he?)

Đây là cặp của bạn phải không?

(This is your bag, isn’t it?)

Items like: được không, được chứ, etc are usually used for imperative purpose:

Câm miệng lại được không?

(Shut up, can’t you?)

There are also some items preceding the statement. For example: Có phải, Phải chăng, Có đúng, Chắc hẳn, etc.

Có phải hôm qua bạn gặp thầy Vũ?

(You met Mr.Vũ yesterday, didn’t you?)

Phải chăng em đã lấy chồng?

(You’ve got married, haven’t you?)

Usage And Intonation

Both English tag questions and the Vietnamese translation equivalences are often used in speech and informal writing when the speakers want confirmations or agreement. Usually, they have their own answers or guesses, or predications; so, “true” answer is not necessarily expected. However, in many situations, these kinds of questions are aimed to seek information although the answer is just “Yes” or “No”. The problem here is when an answer is needed.

In speech, it can be based on the intonation to decide whether to answer an English Tag question or not. There are two patterns of tags: rising tag and falling tag. The rising intonation, when the voice goes up, implies that the speaker is in doubt or asks for verification. Here the speaker wants an answer that confirms the statement.

We’ll meet at six, won’t we?

It is a special case that when a rising tag which involves negative statement implies a suggestion of being afraid that the positive answer is the true one. (Huddleston, 2002, p.894)

It isn’t raining again, is it?

The other pattern, the falling intonation, when the voice goes down, implies that the speaker is somehow sure of the answer. In this case, Tag question is not a real question, but has character of a rhetorical question; the speaker merely wants an agreement.

I don’t do anything wrong, do I?

What a beautiful day, isn’t it?

In the other hand, it cannot be based on the intonation patterns of Vietnamese translation equivalence because Vietnamese people have flat intonation. It should be dependent upon the items added to the statement as mentioned earlier, or upon the facial expressions and the context the question are in. Similarly, it is the context that helps to decide the meaning of a tag question as well as it translation equivalence in writing.

Sometimes, people use Tag questions or its translation equivalence to express disapproval. Then, the English Tag questions have slight rising pattern. (Huddleston, 2002, p.895). For instance:

So you have missed the bus again, haven’t you?

In Vietnamese: Vây ra em lại trễ xe buýt nữa hả?

The suggested context of these questions is that they are the teacher’s response to a pupil’s confession of being late. This use lends to sarcasm.

Last but not least, the two kinds of question can be used to response to what having just been heard. They can indicate surprise or simply acknowledging. In English, “Same-way” tag questions are usually used in this case. Consider the following case:

A: Grandma is coming tomorrow.

B: Grandma is coming, isn’t she? What should I prepare?

In Vietnamese:

A: Mai nội sẽ đến chơi đấy.

B: Nội đến chơi à? Ems phải chuẩn bị gì đây?


Generally, there two answer: “Yes” and “No”. However, the way they are understood is completely different in two languages.

What verbs in statements and their compliments expressed should be considered and whether statements are in affirmative or negative form should be ignored when answering a tag question. It means that “Yes” implies agreement to what verbs and their compliment are about, and “No” implies disagreement of that. For example: It does not matter whether A asks B “Mary is beautiful, isn’t she?” or “Mary isn’t beautiful, is she?”. In both two cases: If B says “Yes”, B means that Mary is beautiful; if B says “No”, B means that Mary is not beautiful.

Meanwhile, when Vietnamese say “Đúng / Ừ / etc.” (Yes) to the translation equivalence, they agree with the statement; when they say “Không / Không phải / Đâu có / etc.” (No), they disagree with the statement. For example:

A: Mary xinh lắm phải không? (Mary is beautiful, isn’t she?)

B: Ừ. (Yes, she is beautiful)

Đâu có. (No, she isn’t beautiful)


A: Mary đâu có xinh phải không? (Mary isn’t beautiful, is she?)

B: Ừ. (Yes, she isn’t beautiful)

Không phải. (No, she is beautiful)

Pedagogical Appliations

Because there are a lot of features to remember in order to make a proper tag question in English while it is quite easy to make its translation equivalence in Vietnamese, Vietnamese student may have difficulties translating or using Tag questions. As the result, when teaching Tag question, teacher should not show all the features at a time so as not to make the students confused. Moreover, students cannot remember everything. It is better to teach the general structure and some common cases first. Then, teachers give various exercises to practice using Tag question so that the students get used to it. Finally, other exercises in which student come across some special cases can be given. At that time, students may make a lot of mistakes, but mistakes will help them remember longer. This method is useful in the way it make student remember the formation and then they can make grammatically right Tag questions.

Remembering formation and being able to make good Tag questions does not mean that they can use them in real life. Doing that need a lot of practice. Therefore, teachers should give students opportunities to practice in speaking. Role play preceded by repetition of Tag questions with different intonations is a good suggestion for this. It help them practice using proper intonation for specific purposes as well as or quickly recognizing to the meaning of Tag questions from others. Furthermore, role play can help the class to be livelier and the lesson to be more communicative. Therefore, the students will be interested in doing the task and be able to use Tag question naturally.

Another problem which Vietnamese students often face when meeting Tag question is to give answers because of the large differences between it and its translation equivalence in Vietnamese. Vietnamese students often give wrong answers because they are biased by the way they response to the translation equivalence. Because of that, this issue should be emphasized and carefully taught during the lesson. So as to help students be accustomed to as well as give appropriate responses, teachers should give very clear situations in the practice. After that, teacher can let the student do role play task so that they can practice in speech. Doing a lot of practice helps student feel confident about making and answering Tag question.


I hope that what mentioned in this paper will offer useful information help to understand more deeply about a special structure in English grammar, Tag question, and its translation equivalence in Vietnamese language. Each structure serves a small part in the language it belongs to, but both of them have an important role thank to its high frequency of appearance in speech and informal writing. These two structures share a lot of common, especially in the way they are used. In terms of formation, each consists of a statement followed by a phrase. In term of usage, they are used to ask for confirmations and agreement, and are used for some other purposes. In the other hand, there are differences between the two kinds of question, the most considerable of which is the intonation and the responses. As the results of that, Vietnamese students of English are often confused and sometimes misunderstand when dealing with English Tag questions. The best way to overcome these is to follow the saying: “Practice makes perfect”.


Cao, X.H. (1991). Tiếng Việt Sơ thảo ngữ pháp chức năng [Vietnamese – The first draft of functional grammar] (Vol.1). Vietnam: Social Science Press.

Hoàng, X.T., Nguyễn, V.B., Bùi, T.T., Cao, X.H. Ngữ pháp chức năng tiếng Việt [Vietnamese functional grammar] (Vol.1). Vietnam: Educational Press.

Hornby, A S (2006). Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (7th ed.). The UK: Oxford University Press.

Huddleston, R., & Pullum, G. K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lê, Q.T. (2004). Nghiên cứu đối chiếu các ngôn ngữ [Contrastive study of languages]. Hanoi: Hanoi National University Press.

Raimes, A. (1998). How English works A grammar handbook with readings. The UK: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (2000). Practical English Usage (2nd ed.). The UK: Oxford University Press.

December 2010

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