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Yes or NO – tag questions Posted by on Oct 21, 2021 in Culture, Grammar, Language

This time, I am going to talk about tag questions (付加疑問文 fuka gimonbun).  I know that  these are confusing to Japanese students learning English, and I bet the Japanese learners must be sharing the same confusion (混乱 konran).

So what is a tag question in English?

You didn’t go to see the movie last night, did you?

If you did not go to see the movie (映画 eiga), what would you answer?  You may say, “No, I didn’t.” And if you did go, you may say “Yes, I did.” Well, at least they are grammatically (文法的に bunpo tekini) correct (正しいt adashii) answers. I asked my son whose native language is English – what would you answer if you did go to see the movie?  His answer was, “Actually, I did.” So let’s talk about that later.

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

I used to ask Japanese students a tag question during their ESL program in the US.  You didn’t go to see the movie last night, did you?  If they did not go to see the movie last night, they were most likely to (最も〜しそう mottomo shisou) say,

Yes.

Just “yes” and nothing else.  As I knew that the Japanese students usually had a problem with a tag question, I always had to ask to confirm (確認する kakuninsuru). “So you did go to see the movie? “  And the students got panicked a bit (慌てる awateru) and said, “No, no, we didn’t go to see the movie.”

My English teacher told me that the Americans focused on “me.”  So if you did go to see the movie, you answer with “yes” and “no” if you did not go to see the movie regardless of the style of questions.  This made it much easier to learn how to answer tag questions than the grammatical explanation.

Now let’s ask the same question in Japanese.

昨日、映画を見に行きませんでしたね。

If they did not go to see the movie, the Japanese would say はい、見に行きませんでした。 We barely say いいえ、見に行きませんでした。

So what if we did go to see the movie?

いいえ、見に行きました。

I got very confused in the polite form!   So here are the same questions and answers in colloquial form.

You did not go to see the movie, did you? – I did not go to see the movie.

昨日、映画見に行かなかったよね。

うん、行かなかったよ。(Yeah, I didn’t go.)

You did go to see the movie.

昨日、映画見に行かなかったよね。

えっ? 行ったよ。

The most natural answer I came up with instinctively (直感的に chokkantekini). Here, I do not answer with yes or no.  I just say えっ? which is like “huh?”  and I answer affirmatively (肯定的に kouteitekini).  It is just like my son answering “Actually, I did.”

Here is a YouTube video I found about tag questions between a Japanese comedian and an American who is fluent in Japanese.  You can find many videos about tag questions by searching 否定疑問文 and 付加疑問文, which proves that Japanese English learners are struggling with them.

In the past, I asked American English native speakers the same question in English many times as I was interested in learning how they, who are not linguistics students or an ESL teacher, would answer. Nobody managed to answer with just yes or no.  As in the above video, they all added a sentence to make their answer clear.  You can do the same in Japanese.  In conversation, you can answer either “はい” or “いいえ” but make sure you add additional information – “行きました” or ”行きませんでした”.  Just be careful if you are taking a Japanese exam!

 

 

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Comments:

  1. Jean:

    Thank you for this! One less thing to make my head hurt.

    • eriko1:

      @Jean Thank you! I am glad to hear that it was helpful!


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