ESL Focus: You know how to use tag questions, don’t you?

Recently, a student encountered a tag question and was quite perplexed. Was this thing a statement or a question?

Yes. ūüôā

We use tag questions in speech quite often, but they are fairly rare in academic prose, less so in expressive writing. A tag question asks your listener/reader to confirm or deny a statement. Thus, the tag question includes both a statement and a short question.

Example: You have lunch money, don’t you?

In this tag question, the statement is “You have lunch money.” The short question, also known as a question tag, is “don’t you?”

You may wonder why we use question tags in the first place. Couldn’t the speaker/writer request the same information using a full question?

Certainly, the speaker/writer could do that (i.e., Do you have lunch money?), but the tag question is more than an equivalent to the full question. The yes-or-no question presented above (Do you have lunch money?) is open ended. In speech, unless this question is accompanied by nonverbal clues, the listener can safely assume that the speaker is merely asking for information.

In contrast, the tag question suggests that the speakerwriter expects or prefers a confirmation or denial. In the example tag question above (You have lunch money, don’t you?), the speaker expects that the listener will or could give an affirmative response: Yes, I do have lunch money.

The relationship between the two parts of a tag question are inversely related. That means that an affirmative statement preceeds a negative tag, and a negative statement preceeds an affirmative tag. Look at these examples:

  • I am invited, aren’t I?
  • You have taken this class before, haven’t you?
  • Juliana visits you often, doesn’t she?
  • Mr. Kim expects only the best, doesn’t he?
  • The movie starts at 7:00, doesn’t it?
  • We are moving on to the next lesson, aren’t we?
  • My children are beautiful, aren’t they?

In each of the sentences above, the speaker either expects or hopes that the listener/reader will agree with the affirmative statement.

  • I haven’t answered your question, have I?
  • You aren’t afraid, are you?
  • Your sister isn’t coming with us, is she?
  • Dad won’t forget to pick me up, will he?
  • This house isn’t for sale, is it?
  • We can’t park here, can we?
  • The dogs aren’t in the car alone, are they?

In each of these sentences, the speaker either expects or hopes that the listener will disagree with the statement.

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Posted by on 13 October 10 in ESL/EFL, Grammar & Usage


Video: Critical Thinking

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Posted by on 8 October 10 in Inspiration


ESL Focus: Phrasal Verbs

It is no surprise that many ESL students find idioms frustrating. Luckily, there are many resources which can help English learners improve their grasp of phrasal verbs (as well as other idioms). Today, I will focus on print and online resources for understanding phrasal verbs.

First of all, what is a phrasal verb? Here’s a helpful definition from the Academic Center at the University of Houston, Victoria:

Phrasal verbs are compound verbs (more than one word) that result from combining a verb with an adverb or a preposition. The resulting compound verb is idiomatic (e.g. its meaning cannot be derived from the dictionary meaning of its parts).

(To see the Academic Center’s complete pdf handout on phrasal verbs, visit


Since phrasal verbs are idiomatic, figuring out their meaning can be a challenge. When you encounter a phrasal verb, first attempt to guess its meaning from the context. Consider this excerpt from an article in the online newspaper, the St. Louis Business Journal:

Belden said late Monday that it plans to stop production at one of its two manufacturing plants in Leominster, Mass., by July 2010, cutting about 170 jobs there.

The wire and cable maker said production from the shuttered plant will move to Belden’s other plant in Leominster, as well as to existing company facilities in Monticello, Ky., and Nogales, Mexico.

About 170 employees will be affected by the move and will be eligible for severance benefits, the company said.

The plant closing is part of a restructuring Belden announced in December, when it said it would lay off 1,800 workers, or 20 percent of its work force, in dealing with a drop in demand for its products.

The article is about the closure of a wire and cable factory, which will result in the company “cutting about 170 jobs.” This plant closing is part of a plan to restructure the company in response to declining sales demand. Part of the plan is to lay off 20% of the company’s work force. Thus, the reader can assume that the phrasal verb lay off means something similar to “to cut.”

Sometimes, however, the context offers no clear clue to an idiom’s meaning, or the reader may wish to verify her guess. In such cases, the reader may use one of two resources: a dictionary or the internet.

If a dictionary is handy, use it. Most common phrasal verbs will be included in the verb’s entry. For example, you can find the meaning of the phrasal verb lay off by looking up the verb lay. Be prepared to find multiple meanings for phrasal verbs. Lay off can mean “to terminate the employment of (a worker), especially temporarily,” “to mark off,” “to stop doing something,” or “to place all or part of (an accepted bet) with another bookie in order to reduce the risk” (American Heritage Dictionary).

If you are more adventurous and want to see the phrasal verb in additional contexts, do a quick internet search for it. For example, go to, enter “lay off” (including the quotation marks) in the search box, and click “Google Search.” The results will be thousands–possibly millions–of websites on which the phrase lay off has been used. Either read the short excerpt on the search result page or click on the links and find lay off in the text. You will have a richer understanding, not only of the definition of the phrasal verb, but also of how writers use it in a variety of genres and for a variey of purposes. For example, when I search lay off, I find that, when it refers to a worker’s termination, it can also be written as one word.


In addition to basic dictionaries, there are also dictionaries and text/workbooks devoted solely to phrasal verbs and other idioms.

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs – $15.56 on
  • Cambridge Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $21.90 on
  • Longman Pocket Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $5.75 on
  • McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs – $15.61 on
  • NTC’s Dictionary of Phrasal Verbs and Other Idiomatic Verbal Phrases – $17.90 on
  • Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary – $18.67 on
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Posted by on 30 July 09 in ESL/EFL, Grammar & Usage


Gretchen Rubin’s “13 Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done”

Author Gretchen Rubin offers thirteen very useful, very simple tips to get you writing. Below is an excerpt, but please click here to read the entire blog entry.

One of the challenges of writing is…writing. Here are some tips that I’ve found most useful for myself, for actually getting words onto the page:

1. Write something every work-day, and preferably, every day; don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Staying inside a project keeps you engaged, keeps your mind working, and keeps ideas flowing. Also, perhaps surprisingly, it’s often easier to do something almost every day than to do it three times a week. (This may be related to the abstainer/moderator split.)

2. Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done. Don’t mislead yourself, as I did for several years, with thoughts like, “If I don’t have three or four hours clear, there’s no point in starting.”

3. Don’t binge on writing. Staying up all night, not leaving your house for days, abandoning all other priorities in your life — these habits lead to burn-out.

If you enjoy this entry, become a regular reader of her Happiness Project blog and look for her book, The Happiness Project, late this year.


How Can I Avoid Plagiarism?

Many tutees — and academic writers, in general — are concerned about plagiarism. Not only are they (rightly) intent on making sure their own arguments are not lost among or confused with those of their sources, but they also are keenly aware that the penalties for plagiarism are numerous: failing grades, removal from courses, and lingering stigma in one’s academic community. Therefore, students spend much of their composition time agonizing over summaries, paraphrases, and direct quotations, often sacrificing time that could be used developing their own arguments.

Sadly,¬† because the stakes are so high, many writers develop anxiety about proper documentation. Here are a few online resources I’ve found so far that I hope will assist writers in the never-ending quest to avoid plagiarism.


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7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers

Working as an English tutor has given me the opportunity to explore writing more than I ever would if I were just concerned with my own composition skills. I now revel in the moments between sessions when I can study grammar or the writing process. Such reading helps me find new ways to verbalize for my tutees what I already know about composition.

These days my emphasis is on learning how to help tutees discover their optimal individual writing process. I simply adore Barbara Fine Clouse’s A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers: Strategies and Process. (See the ToC here.) In it, she offers actual techniques for overcoming difficulties at every stage of writing. The book’s introduction alone has renewed my enthusiasm about composition, and I would like to share an excerpt with you.

7 Habits of Highly Successful Writers

  1. Be patient. Improving a skill takes time. Just as perfecting a foul shot takes a basketball player time and practice, so too does improving your writing. If you expect too much too soon, you will become frustrated. Look for slow, steady progress rather than dramatic, overnight improvement.
  2. Expect to get stuck. Everyone does, even experienced, professional writers. Writer’s block and dead ends are all part of writing, so do not think there is something wrong with you if you have some trouble. Consult this text, your instructor, other experienced writers, and/or a writing center tutor when you get stuck. When you solve the problem, tuck the solution away for future reference, so the same problem does not palgue you over and over again.
  3. Remember that writing is really rewriting. Experienced writers work and rework drafts several times. With each revision, know that you are acting like an experienced writer.
  4. Talk to other writers. Find out what they do when they write, and try some of their procedures. Form a network with your classmates and other writers for support and suggestions.
  5. Study the responses to your writing. What does your instructor say about your writing? What do your classmates say when they read your drafts? What do people in the writing  center say? Reader response is valuabel to a writer. By paying attenetion to this response and working to improve areas where readers see weaknesses, you can improve more quickly. If you do not understand a response or if you do not know how to make a change, ask for help.
  6. Read, read, read. Read every day — the newspaper, news-magazines, short stories, crime novels. Read anything that interests you. Notice how other writers handle introductions, conclusions, supporting detail, and transitions. Look up unfamiliar words, notice sentence structure, and observe punctuations. The more you read, the more you learn about the nature of language, and the faster your writing will improve. Furthermore, frequent reading makes you more knowledgeable, so you have more ideas for your writing.
  7. Do not fear mistakes. They are a natural part of learning. Take risks; try things out. If you make mistakes, embrace them as opportunities to learn. If you are afraid of making a mistake, you will never try; if you never try, you will never grow. Connect your mistakes to your writing procedures. Decide which procedures work well for you and which do not. Then consult this text and your instructor for procedures to replace ones that did not work. For example, maybe idea generation goes well for you, but revision does not. That means you need to discover new revision procedures. When your procedures work better, your writing will improve.
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Posted by on 3 October 08 in Inspiration, The Writing Process


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