1. Education
Richard Nordquist

It's National Grammar Day, Right?

By March 3, 2010

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Ancient attitudes to grammar still survive: many people are in awe of it, know little about it, tend to fear or dislike it, often find it baffling and boring if exposed to it at school, and yet a minority is fascinated by it: a field in which precise scholarship and nit-picking pedantry have coexisted for centuries.
(Sidney Greenbaum, "Grammar," in The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)

Whether your approach to grammar is descriptive (scholarly) or prescriptive (nitpicking), March 4 is a day when we should all get along. Or perhaps a day on which we should all get along. Either way, March 4 is National Grammar Day.

Hosted this year by Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), National Grammar Day was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]. Because SPOGG's mission is not only to "encourage the use of standard English grammar and spelling" but also to foster "a sense of humor about language (and other things, as well)," we're happy to play along. Okay?

We've chosen to mark the occasion by paying homage to a common grammatical structure that's rarely taught in school. A structure as simple as the particle eh? in Canada and eh no? in Scotland. And sometimes as annoying as the American huh? and the almost universal okay?

You're referring to the tag question, aren't you?

Yes indeed. A tag question (or in Britain, a question tag) is a question added to a declarative sentence, usually at the end. More common in spoken English than in formal prose, tags serve as discourse markers to engage the listener and invite agreement. As Randal Graves says (and tags) in the movie Clerks, "There's nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there?"

So this sentence also ends with a tag question, doesn't it?

Right again. Tag questions are usually negative after a positive statement, and positive after a negative statement. Linguists call this "contrasting polarity." But then you're probably not paying attention anymore, are you?

In the feud between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians, we try to avoid taking sides--especially on National Grammar Day. Still, it's worth remembering that grammar is not just a cranky exercise in pointing out the stylistic shortcomings of others. Grammar matters because it allows us to talk about language, and language (so we've heard) is a defining characteristic of being human.

Or as Bart Simpson says, "Grammar is not a time of waste." Is it?

More About Grammar:


March 3, 2010 at 9:00 am
(1) Martha Brockenbrough says:

Hi, Richard. What a useful post. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, and have a happy National Grammar Day, all right?

March 9, 2010 at 2:33 am
(2) Jon von Gunten says:

I’m wondering how long ago, and in what written genres, the question tag’s being tied to a declarative sentence by a simple comma became grammatically “legal.”

Isn’t it the only English instance of a simple comma being “allowed to” join what are really two sentences?

They should really be written like this. Shouldn’t they?

Where did we get license to join two very separate ideas—a positive statement and a negative question about it (or vice versa)—with just a comma?

Question tags can all be recast as a shorter sentence, can’t they?

Can’t all question tags be recast as a shorter sentence?

March 2, 2011 at 10:49 pm
(3) Alan Headbloom says:


I guess the “legality” of sticking the two thoughts together comes from cases where the question element is reduced way beyond recognition of a sentence down to a single element and doesn’t seem to have independent status. At some point, there is a psychological necessity to glom it onto the sentence rather than keep it artificially apart. It seems like an orphan otherwise.

They should be written separately. Don’t you think they should?
They should be written separately. Don’t you think so?
They should be written separately. Don’t you think?
They should be written separately, you think?

In Spanish, tags are a single word: ¿verdad? ([Isn't this the] truth?).
In German, tags are one or two words: nicht (wahr)? (not [true]?).
Some English speakers (under influence of Spanish, perhaps?) add a simple tag: no? as in “They should all be written separately, no?”

With regard to your other observation (Can’t all question tags be recast as a shorter sentence?), I find a big difference in meaning and timing of an utterance. In order to say your sentence, the speaker needs to have the question fully formed ahead of time. Often, however, we are confronted with new realizations (contradictions, ideas, doubts, etc.) in the middle of the speech act. Adding a tag at the end allows us to shift from a simple declarative sentence to an act of seeking agreement from the listener.

It would be interesting to ask speakers of other languages how connected or separate they feel tags to be from their main sentences. Some examples:

Brazilian Portuguese: não é? (contracted: né?) = isn’t it?
Japanese: honto desuka? = Is it the truth?
Hausa: ko ba haka ba? = or (isn’t it) thus?
German: oder (nicht)? = or (not)?

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