Questions, questions!

Several months ago, while waiting for my morning coffee, I heard a woman nearby say on her phone 

Are you still in bed, are you?

It’s certainly clear, but it’s not a standard question structure. We can easily have

You’re still where
You’re still in bed?
Are you still in bed?
You’re still in bed, aren’t you?
You’re not/You aren’t still in bed, are you?

and possibly

You’re still in bed, are you?

but not 

You’re not/You aren’t still in bed, aren’t you?

Are you still in bed, are you? combines two question structures, yes/no and tag (which is a bit confusing, because tag questions also require yes or no for an answer). Yes/no questions are usually used when the speaker doesn’t know the answer, and wants the listener to tell them. Tag questions are usually used when the speaker thinks they know the answer, and want the listener to confirm it. They are complicated by the opposite polarity of the statement part and the tag part and by the upward or downward inflection of the tag part. The woman’s question was the combination of two different structures performing two different questioning functions. 

As an ESL teacher, I have found that second language learners generally struggle with tag questions (probably because there’s a negative in there somewhere), so I tried not to use that structure much. As a legal editor, I have encountered exchanges such as:

Counsel: When you went to the doctor’s that day, you didn’t tell him about the workplace accident, did you?
Claimant: (vehemently) No! [Thinks: “I disagree with your assertion because I did tell him about the accident.”]
Counsel: [Thinks: “He means, ‘No, I didn’t tell him about the accident’.”.]


Counsel: When you went to the doctor’s that day, you didn’t tell him about the workplace accident, did you?
Claimant: (flatly) No

I assume that the person the woman was talking to was still in bed. 


13 thoughts on “Questions, questions!

  1. In Korean, the answer to “Didn’t you do X?” is No if you did do X, and Yes if you didn’t (sort of like “Mais oui” in French). Tag questions are not of the same form as in English, and I’ve always observed Korean speakers of English to have trouble with them, e.g. “You didn’t do X, is it?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’ve read that in textbooks and seen and heard on videos, but haven’t encountered it in real life. I read somewhere once that ‘yea’ and ‘nay’ originally worked like that, but fell out of general use.
      Korean also uses negatively phrased questions more than English. I’ve heard my wife ask in a clothes shop 다른 책 없어요?, where ‘Don’t you have another colour?’ would sound peevish.


  2. What your wife asked was literally about “another book” (did she mean a book of fabric colours?), which reminds me that “checkbook” is sort of a cross-lingual redundancy pun for Korean/English speakers.

    Come to think of it, taking advantage of the negative-question language feature could bring a Korean version of the Monty Python cheese shop sketch to a whole new level, if the customer were to keep asking “Don’t you have (variety of cheese)?”

    Liked by 1 person

    • My wife speaks perfect Korean and said 색 (colour) not 책 (book). I type imperfect Korean. Maybe I shouldn’t comment late in the evening, either.
      In that case, the answer to ‘Don’t you have …?’ is ‘Yes’!
      Or a huge (휴지) tissue.


  3. Of course there’s “Yes We Have No Bananas”, presumably the answer to a negatively phrased question as well.

    For some reason your tissue remark calls to mind the classic Python line “You can’t stamp a huge lion.” (“They stamp them when they’re small.”) There’s just something slightly off, and therefore funny, about the use of “huge” in that context.


  4. I wasn’t sure that I had ever heard Yes we have no bananas in full, and now that I have heard it in full I’m sure that I hadn’t. It’s a song one would not easily forget having heard. The lyrics say that “the Greek” simply said ‘yes’ to everything, so the implied question was ‘Do you have/Have you got (any) bananas’. Also, the song rhymes to-mah-to and po-tah-to, and Marianna (his daughter) with banana. (See the next post.)


  5. The only (other) song I know of that refers to potato as potahto is “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin. But I always wondered: does anyone anywhere actually say potahto, or is that just a joke to rhyme with tomato/tomahto?

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Ah, I either missed that post or forgot that I had read it. I thought I had caught up to all your 2020 posts, but perhaps not. Always worth going back and reading the archives.

    “potato” may never actually have been mispronounced, but it’s often been misspelled, perhaps deliberately, by erstwhile U.S. vice presidents.


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