How to use the question tag “isn’t it?”

A lot of my students ask me how to use question tags, and it can be quite a complicated concept to get your head round (understand) but actually it’s fairly simple. I’ve broken it down into details, showing positive and negative use and how to use it in a conversation. There’s also a link at the end of the article to see how to use question tags with other verbs.

Please feel free to comment on how useful and easy the following explanation was for you to understand so I can make improvements next time.

When should you use the question tag “isn’t it?”
You want your conversation partner to AGREE with a positive statement you make, so you end the sentence with “isn’t it?”.

It’s raining outside and Tom wants to go for a walk. (The part of conversation in red is the positive statement)
Tom: Shall we go for a walk?
Pete: It’s raining outside, isn’t it? (Pete doesn’t like walking in the rain and wants Tom to agree that it’s raining so that he doesn’t have to go for a walk)
Tom: Yes, so it is! Let’s watch TV instead! (Tom agrees that it’s raining and makes a suggestion to do something else)
Pete: Ok then.

How do you use it?
Step 1. Make a true and positive statement using the verb to be. (ie. It’s raining)
Step 2. End the statement with the phrase isn’t it?
Step 3. In most cases your conversation partner AGREES with you.

Tom and Pete are talking about being new dads.
Tom: It’s tiring being a new dad, isn’t it?
Pete: Yes it sure is! (Pete agrees with him)
Tom: Have a coffee on me! (Tom buys him a coffee to wake him up!)

Sometimes your conversation partner can DISAGREE with you.

Tom: It’s tiring being a new dad, isn’t it? (Tom makes a statement about being a new dad expecting Pete to say yes)
Pete: Not really, my wife deals with all the night time work. (Pete disagrees with Tom because his wife gets up with the baby)

It’s easy isn’t it? Yes it is! (Not really, I don’t get it!)
The answer you are looking for is YES but your conversation partner can disagree with you.

Tom: Let’s go for a walk.
Pete: It’s raining, isn’t it? (Pete thinks it’s raining and wants his thought confirmed)
Tom: No, I think it’s just stopped. (Tom disagrees, it’s not actually raining)
Pete: Oh, ok, let’s go then!

How to use isn’t it with a negative statement.
We use question tags in the negative for two reasons, fistly becasue we want to seek the agreement of our conversation partner, and secondly because we want to show DISBELIEF, UNCERTAINTY or some other negative emotion.

Tom looks outside to check on the weather.
Pete: It isn’t raining, is it? (Pete can’t believe it’s raining and and wants Tom to confirm that it isn’t raining)
Tom: Yes, it’s raining again!
Pete: Damn, I really wanted to go for a walk!

How do you use it?
Step 1. Make a negative statement that expresses concern or disbelief.
Step 2. End the statement with the phrase is it?
Step 3. In most cases your conversation partner AGREES with you.

Tom and Pete are watching a movie together.
Tom:It isn’t over, is it? (Tom is sad that the movie has finished, and he wants confirmation form Pete that it is over)
Pete: Yes, it’s a really short movie.
Tom: Well I’m looking forward to the sequel then!

Tom is a vegetarian and finds something suspicious in his meal.
Tom:It isn’t meat, is it? (Tom is worried that he’s eating meat)
Pete: No! I wouldn’t do that to you! It’s tofu!
Tom: Oh good! You’ll have to give me the recipe.

Why don’t you just ask a simple question?
When Petes says “Is it raining?” he is implying that he doesn’t know that it’s raining.
When Pete says “It’s raining isn’t?” this implies that he knows or thinks it’s raining and is seeking confirmation from his conversation partner, maybe he’s not sure, or maybe he’s just thinking out loud.

Other examples with the verb to be using other pronouns
I’m good at this, aren’t I? (seeking conformation about being good at something)
He’s happy, isn’t he? (seeking confirmation about someone’s happiness)
They are working hard, aren’t they? (checking that something is true)
This link from the British Council explains briefly how you can use question tags with auxilliary and modal verbs.

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