Episode 178: July 10, 2009
by Bonnie Trenga
Today guest-writer Bonnie Trenga will help us talk about two kinds of peculiar questions. Isn’t that going to be fun! "Isn't that going to be fun," is a rhetorical question. We’re also going to learn about its cousin. That’s called a tag question, isn’t it? That last sentence was an example of a tag question.
This all started because of a question from one of my Twitter followers. Aaron wants to know if the sentence “Isn’t it funny?” is correct, and he’d like to know if he's allowed to use such a construction in formal situations.
You’ve probably heard rhetorical questions more often than you realize. You start a sentence with a negative word when you mean something positive. So “Wasn’t that movie great?” means that you think the movie was great. It seems counterintuitive, but that’s the way English works. It’s called a rhetorical question, and it can end in either a question mark or an exclamation point, and in dialogue you can sometimes even have a speaker’s rhetorical question end in a period (1).
Another example of a rhetorical question is “Isn’t she leaving?” That question means you think the woman is leaving, but you want to confirm. Rhetorical questions like this take a negative form. If you make the “Isn’t she leaving?” question positive, it becomes just a regular question: “Is she leaving?” If you ask "Is she leaving?" you don’t know the answer; whereas with the rhetorical question “Isn’t she leaving?” you are assuming she is leaving.
Rhetorical questions have popped up in pop music. Stevie Wonder, for example, wrote a famous song called “Isn’t She Lovely,” whose lyrics begin:
“Isn't she lovely,
Isn't she wonderful,
Isn't she precious,” (2)
Mr. Wonder definitely thinks the girl is lovely, wonderful, and precious. No question about that.
These kinds of rhetorical questions seem to be quite conversational. You wouldn’t want to write, “Aren’t I the perfect person for this job?” in a job cover letter, nor would you want to say, “Isn’t it obvious that you should hire me?” in an interview. There are better ways to sound more qualified and more professional. So, Aaron: no, it’s not advisable to use this kind of construction in formal situations.
The second kind of question we’re talking about today is called a tag question. “Tag questions, a peculiarity of English, are usually spoken rather than written,” states the website English Online (3). The rhetorical question “Isn’t she leaving?” means about the same thing as “She is leaving, isn’t she?” Students who are learning English often find this kind of construction puzzling because the speaker uses a negative form to mean something positive. As the Interesting Thing of the Day website wisely explains, “The simplest way to make a tag question in English is to repeat the verb, negate it, and then repeat the subject. For example, ‘He is smart’ becomes ‘He is smart, isn’t he? (4)" Note how the word "isn't" is negating the verb "is" from the first part of the sentence: "He IS smart, ISN'T he?"
"If the verb is already negative, you just make it positive. ‘It won’t rain’ becomes ‘It won’t rain, will it?’(4)" So, if we wanted to change Aaron’s rhetorical question “Isn’t it funny?” into a tag question, we would say, “It’s funny, isn’t it?” Both sentences mean “I think it’s funny.”
One clue that tag questions are best left to informal situations is that you often hear them used with contractions, which themselves are a bit informal. It would sound weird to ask "It will not rain, will it?" It sounds much more normal with a contraction: "It won't rain, will it?"
In summary, rhetorical questions and tag questions are normal parts of everyday speech, but they are informal. It’s therefore best to avoid them in formal situations.
While you're here, please check out the other Quick and Dirty Tips shows. For example, The Winning Investor, Andrew Horowitz, has a podcast about how to read stock charts. If you haven't checked him out yet, give it a try.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
1. Stilman, A. Grammatically Correct. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004, p. 117
2. http://www.mp3lyrics.org/s/stevie-wonder/isnt-she-lovely/. Accessed July 2, 2009.
3. "Exploring Language," English Online, 1996, http://tinyurl.com/mdlsk9. Accessed July 2, 2009.
4. "Tag Questions," Interesting Thing of the Day, 2005, http://itotd.com/articles/425/tag-questions/. Accessed July 2, 2009.