Posted by: episystechpubs | September 25, 2014

Editor’s Corner: Answers about questions

Yesterday at the coffee cart, I was asked a question about questions. With a little research, I found this article which talks about some anomalies when it comes to questions. The article was written by Mignon Fogarty’s guest, Bonnie Trenga Mills. For Ms. Mills’ complete article and citations, please see the original article here: Grammar Girl.

Rhetorical Questions

You’ve probably heard rhetorical questions more often than you realize. You start a sentence with a negative word when you mean something positive. So “Wasn’t that movie great?” means that you think the movie was great. It seems counterintuitive, but that’s the way English works. It’s called a rhetorical question, and it can end in either a question mark or an exclamation point, and in dialogue you can sometimes even have a speaker’s rhetorical question end in a period.

Another example of a rhetorical question is “Isn’t she leaving?” That question means you think the woman is leaving, but you want to confirm. Rhetorical questions like this take a negative form. If you make the “Isn’t she leaving?” question positive, it becomes just a regular question: “Is she leaving?” If you ask "Is she leaving?" you don’t know the answer; whereas with the rhetorical question “Isn’t she leaving?” you are assuming she is leaving.

Rhetorical questions have popped up in pop music. Stevie Wonder, for example, wrote a famous song called “Isn’t She Lovely,” whose lyrics begin:

“Isn’t she lovely,

Isn’t she wonderful,

Isn’t she precious,”

Mr. Wonder definitely thinks the girl is lovely, wonderful, and precious. No question about that.

These kinds of rhetorical questions seem to be quite conversational. You wouldn’t want to write, “Aren’t I the perfect person for this job?” in a job cover letter, nor would you want to say, “Isn’t it obvious that you should hire me?” in an interview. There are better ways to sound more qualified and more professional.

Tag Questions

The second kind of question we’re talking about today is called a tag question. “Tag questions, a peculiarity of English, are usually spoken rather than written,” states the website English Online. The rhetorical question “Isn’t she leaving?” means about the same thing as “She is leaving, isn’t she?” Students who are learning English often find this kind of construction puzzling because the speaker uses a negative form to mean something positive. As the Interesting Thing of the Daywebsite wisely explains, “The simplest way to make a tag question in English is to repeat the verb, negate it, and then repeat the subject. For example, ‘He is smart’ becomes ‘He is smart, isn’t he?" Note how the word "isn’t" is negating the verb "is" from the first part of the sentence: "He IS smart, ISN’T he?"

"If the verb is already negative, you just make it positive. ‘It won’t rain’ becomes ‘It won’t rain, will it?’" So, if we wanted to change Aaron’s rhetorical question “Isn’t it funny?” into a tag question, we would say, “It’s funny, isn’t it?” Both sentences mean “I think it’s funny.”

One clue that tag questions are best left to informal situations is that you often hear them used with contractions, which themselves are a bit informal. It would sound weird to ask "It will not rain, will it?" It sounds much more normal with a contraction: "It won’t rain, will it?"


In summary, rhetorical questions and tag questions are normal parts of everyday speech, but they are informal. It’s therefore best to avoid them in formal situations.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

619-542-6773 | Ext: 766773

NOTICE: This electronic mail message and any files transmitted with it are intended
exclusively for the individual or entity to which it is addressed. The message,
together with any attachment, may contain confidential and/or privileged information.
Any unauthorized review, use, printing, saving, copying, disclosure or distribution
is strictly prohibited. If you have received this message in error, please
immediately advise the sender by reply email and delete all copies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: