Isn't It

Did you know that English has no single phrase that can be used on all occasions to mean 'isn't that so'?

by Louis Alexander


Most European languages possess a phrase that can be used on all occasions to mean 'isn't that so?'. French, for example, has 'n'est-ce-pas?'; German has 'nicht wahr?', and so on. English has 'isn't it?' and 'isn't that so?', but these phrases have very limited uses, so they cannot be used on all occasions. So greatly do some English speakers feel the need for such a phrase, that in sub-standard British English, the term 'innit?' (= isn't it?) is used on all occasions. So you might hear, 'There's nothing I can do about it, innit?', where strictly correct English would require, 'There's nothing I can do about it, is there?'.

The system for expressing 'isn't that so?' is extremely complex in English and is achieved by contrasting affirmative and negative or negative and affirmative with added phrases, which are known in grammar as 'tags'. The meaning of the tag depends on the intonation we use. The examples which follow below will give you an idea of how this system works:

Affirmative - negative/negative - affirmative seeking factual information. When we ask tag questions with a rising tone, we are asking real questions which expect Yes/No answers. However, tag questions often convey more than simple Yes/No questions: as well as asking for information they can express surprise, anger, interest, etc.:
You left the gas on, didn't you? (= Did you leave the gas on?)
You didn't leave the gas on, did you? (= I hope you didn't leave the gas on.)
You couldn't do me a favour, could you? (= I hope you can do me a favour.)

Affirmative - negative/negative - affirmative expressing confirmation. When tag questions are asked with a falling tone, they are more like statements: the falling tone suggests greater certainty. They ask for confirmation of what the questioner assumes to be true.
You locked the door, didn't you? (expecting positive confirmation: Yes, I did.)
You didn't lock the door, did you? (expecting negative confirmation: No, I didn't.)

Affirmative - affirmative tag questions expressing confirmation, etc. Affirmative - affirmative tag questions with a rising tone sometimes ask for confirmation of something the speaker already knows, expressing friendly interest, etc. (= Tell me more.)
So she's getting married, is she? (= Tell me more.)
However, with a falling tone, affirmative - affirmative tags are often used to express disappointment:
You sold that lovely bracelet, did you? (= I'm sorry you sold it.)
Affirmative - affirmative tags can also express less friendly feelings like suspicion, disapproval and even threat. The tone falls at the end of the statement and rises only on the tag. No answer is required.
You call this a day's work, do you? (= I certainly don't.)
I'll get my money back, will I? (= I don't believe it.)
So you thought you'd fooled me, did you? (= How mistaken you are.)

There is no scope in Direct English to go into complexities of this kind. However, intensive practice of question and answer forms with auxiliary verbs ensures that the foundations are laid for mastery of the diverse ways in which we express 'isn't that so?' in English.

 

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