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Tag questions in fiction dialogue vs. spoken conversation

Conference paper
Authors Karin Axelsson
Published in ICAME (International Computer Archive of Modern and Medieval English) 30, Lancaster, U.K., 27-31 May 2009
Publication year 2009
Published at Department of Languages and Literatures
Language en
Keywords English, tag questions, fiction, direct speech, spoken language, corpus linguistics
Subject categories English language


Tag questions are a typical feature of spoken English, and particularly spoken British English (Tottie & Hoffmann 2006), but they are also found in fiction, especially in fiction dialogue. This study compares the use of tag questions in spoken conversation and fiction dialogue. The data comes from the British National Corpus: the demographic part of the spoken component and a subcorpus of fiction where only tag questions found in direct speech are considered. The proportion of direct speech has been calculated statistically in order to enable frequency comparisons to the spoken data. The query results have been thinned randomly; still, over 1,100 instances from each mode have been analysed for a wide range of features. Tag questions may have declarative, imperative, interrogative and exclamative anchors; these types are treated separately in this investigation due to their formal and functional differences. Tag questions with declarative anchors are very common in spoken conversation, where they are about three times as frequent as in fiction dialogue. Tag questions with imperative anchors are, on the other hand, infrequent in spoken conversation, and twice as frequent in fiction dialogue. Tag questions with interrogative anchors are infrequent in both modes, and tag questions with exclamative anchors are not found at all in the thinned query result, although a search in the whole of the BNC shows that there are a few such examples, most of them in the spoken demographic part. For the tag questions with declarative anchors, there are both similarities and differences in the distribution of various features in the two samples. Similar proportions have been found for e.g. the features reversed/constant polarity, tense of the tag operator and modal/non-modal tag operator. Forms of be are predominant in question tags in both the spoken and the written sample, usually in the wording isn’t it. A striking difference is, however, that you is a more common tag subject than it in fiction dialogue. In fact, intentional subjects are found in about two thirds of the question tags in fiction dialogue, but only in about half of the question tags in the spoken sample. Question tags with be (including innit) are more predominant in the spoken sample, whereas forms of do are used in a higher proportion in fiction dialogue than in spoken conversation. For the reversed-polarity tag questions, the pattern positive anchor plus negative tag (vs. negative anchor plus positive tag) is more predominant in the spoken sample. Non-standard tags, e.g. innit, and ellipsis in the anchor are found in both samples, but to a higher degree in the spoken data. Tag questions are not always followed by a response from the addressee: about a quarter of all tag questions are turn-holding in my spoken data. Andersen found innit to be turn-holding in a third of all instances in his study of teenagers’ use of innit in COLT (2001:133, 315), but innit is turn-holding to the same degree as other questions tags in my spoken BNC data. By comparison, tag questions are turn-holding to an even higher degree in fiction dialogue: in about 45 per cent of the instances, the same speaker goes on talking after the tag question. The differences in frequency and distribution of features for tag questions between fiction dialogue and spoken conversation indicate that the language of fiction dialogue is well worth studying. Andersen, Gisle. 2001. Pragmatic markers and sociolinguistic variation: A relevance-theoretical approach to the language of adolescents. Philadelphia: Benjamins. Tottie, Gunnel and Sebastian Hoffmann. 2006. Tag questions in British and American English. Journal of English Linguistics 34 (4): 283–311.

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