Question tags, which are often called tag questions in American English, are very common in spoken English.
They are easy to form by using the auxiliary verb to turn a statement into a question.
You live in San Francisco, don’t you?
By using rising or falling intonation, we can say that we are sure or not sure of the answer. But should you use this part of speech in dialogue in fiction writing?
Question tag structure
We use question tags to elicit agreement, for emphasis, for a suggestion or to express uncertainty.
By using intonation, either up or down, we can vary the strength or meaning of a question.
You know what I mean, don’t you? (agreement)
You’ll go to the doctor tomorrow, won’t you? (emphasis)
The situation is not good, is it? (uncertainty)
Let’s go to lunch, shall we? (suggestion)
Except for the irregular tags of let’s and shall, we form all question tags by using the positive or negative matching auxiliary verb.
When we use the imperative, we use will as the tag.
Open the door for me, will you?
When we speak, the meaning of these questions is quite clear. But it is not as easy to express the real sense in writing.
The problem with using tag questions in fiction writing is that it is impossible to add falling or rising intonation.
It means that it is difficult to know if the question is positive or negative or how much strength is in the phrase. Let’s take a short positive statement in a present simple sentence.
Look, it’s an alien!
If we add a negative tag, the phrase loses its clarity and strength.
Look, it’s an alien, isn’t it?
In the phrase above, it dilutes the value of what the character is saying. The sense of the sentence is uncertain.
Without the ability to add rising or falling intonation, we don’t know if the character is certain or uncertain about the alien.
Look, it’s an alien, isn’t it? Rising intonation would indicate uncertainty. ⇑
Look, it’s an alien, isn’t it? Falling intonation would indicate certainty. ⇓
It is impossible to add this intonation in writing.
You want your characters to be authoritative and bold in what they say. Tags can inhibit this and reduce the effectiveness of an utterance in dialogue.
But if we add more information, it is possible to use a tag, along with an added degree of certainty.
Look, it’s green, and it’s got two heads and seven arms! It has to be an alien, doesn’t it!
Now it is reasonably clear that the character is expressing a degree of certainty.
There are only limited uses in fiction dialogue for question tags.
If you check your manuscript and find a lot of them, you should reconsider why you are using so many.
You need to have a clear purpose for each instance. What are you trying to say?
If it is only for your dialogue to sound more natural, it is probably the wrong reason.
Without the benefit of intonation, it is next to impossible to replicate the nuances that are possible in spoken language.
However, you might be able to use echo questions. These are uttered by the second person in a conversation to express understanding or agreement.
I tried to call him three times last night.
Did you? (Echo question)
Yes, three times. So I’m worried.
This form is perhaps more evident in meaning. But it is still quite weak and can become tedious if it is used too often.
Don’t be vague
Another problem that can occur is including hedge words that express uncertainty. These include, seemed, sort of, and a bit.
When you add them to a tag question, they diminish the value of an utterance.
He seemed a bit upset, didn’t he?
They were sort of unfriendly, weren’t they?
She was a bit shy, wasn’t she?
It would be much better to be direct and use a more powerful statement.
He was very upset.
They were extremely unfriendly.
She was awfully shy.
Avoid being indecisive
Don’t let your characters become wishy-washy or thin in your dialogue.
You want them to be bold and decisive is what they have to say.
It is an essential tool for a writer. You want to be able to show your story through your characters’ dialogue.
Question tags are like seasoning.
Use them sparingly and only when there is a necessity to express uncertainty, doubt, or on occasions, to add an extra degree of emphasis.
If you are not sure, it is probably better to remove a tag question and go straight to the point with an affirmative statement or direct question.