Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

More Agreement With Nearest in Tag Questions

Posted by Neal on January 12, 2012

For my birthday in 1980, I was given the game Black Box. It’s a fun game, and I’ve kept it all these years. The object is to figure out where in an 8×8 grid your opponent has placed five balls. You do this by sending imaginary rays into a plastic model of the grid at various locations, and learning whether they have scored a direct hit, or been deflected in a new direction. When you figure out where a ball is located, you mark its place on the model with one of the yellow balls provided, which are just the right size and color to be delicious yellow gumballs. It occurs to me now that Parker Brothers probably stopped making the game because it was a choking hazard because of the yellow-gumball factor. I still have to resist the urge to pop one of those yellow balls into my mouth when I play Black Box.

I had to resist again when I showed Adam the game a few weeks ago. Adam didn’t seem to be affected; he just kept trying to figure out where I’d hidden my balls (my five balls, that is), and eventually asked me:

This is how your balls are arranged, aren’t they?

He was right, but how about that tag question? You’d expect a tag question starting with This is to end with isn’t it?, but instead it ends with aren’t they. It’s as if the question tag were attaching to the clause your balls are arranged instead of to the larger This is how….

I did something similar during a conversation a few months earlier. I don’t remember what it was about, but I do remember saying this at one point:

You don’t think she’s been coaching him, has she?

Again, you’d think a tag question beginning with You don’t would end with do you? Instead, the tag has been attracted to the smaller clause she’s been coaching him. But it’s not simply a case of agreement with nearest, as I classified it a few years ago. I chose the tag has she instead of does she because of the she’s in that nearer clause, but there’s still a way that the tag is tied to the farther-away clause. Notice that if the tag question were just She’s been coaching him…?, the tag would be hasn’t she instead of has she? The reason I’m able to have a non-negated tag is that the first clause, You don’t think…, is still having an effect. In short, the tag has she is a hybrid: It has the positive polarity of do you but the actual word choice and subject-verb agreement of hasn’t she.

One of these days when it’s not so late at night, I’ll get on COCA and see how often this kind of quasi-agreement-with-nearest turns up. In the meantime, your own real-life examples are welcome in the comments.

UPDATE, Jan. 12, 2011: I’ve replaced the paragraph discussing the coaching question with one that has a more explicit and (I hope) clearer discussion, and deleted the paragraph that originally came after it. Now I tell myself once again: Don’t do linguistics blogging so late at night! And this time I mean it!

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7 Responses to “More Agreement With Nearest in Tag Questions”

  1. Ran said

    > […] I do remember saying this at one point:
    > > You don’t think she’s been coaching him, has she?
    > […] I didn’t say You don’t think she’s been coaching him, has she?

    Either there’s a typo in here somewhere, or this distinction has flown right over my head!

    • Neal said

      It went beyond typo. That was a paragraph I kept rewriting while fighting off sleep, because I was just so darn close to finishing the post I figured I could make it work. I rewrote it now in about ten minutes; it’s amazing the difference a few hours makes!

      • Ran said

        Ah, O.K., the new version makes much more sense.

        I wonder if it could make sense to analyze it as a sort of semantic agreement, rather than strictly an instance of agreement with the nearest. (Or, perhaps, as a combination of the two.) If we treat “You don’t think she’s been coaching him” as meaning roughly “She hasn’t been coaching him, in your opinion”, then the “has she?” tag makes sense.

        A bit of Googling finds some similar examples, but where the negation is solely semantic, in that it’s provided by “doubt” rather than “not”:

        > If the internship is done as part of the school’s curriculum, I doubt he has much choice, does he?

        > I doubt he’ll eat seed, will he?

      • Maybe it has nothing to do with negation at all. Maybe it’s more a marker of doubt.

  2. Glen said

    Have you tried out the dastardly “unsolvable array” on Adam yet? In case you don’t remember: you place one ball on each of the four corners of a 4×4 square, and the fifth ball in any of the four center spots. Your opponent will eventually find all four corner balls, and he will be able to infer that the fifth must be in one of those four center spots, but he will be unable to determine which one (because the reflection rules prevent any ray from getting into the center of the 4×4 square).

    • Neal said

      Oh, yes, indeed. Well, no, I take it back: I wasn’t quite that dastardly. I arranged the balls in a quincunx, so that the last location could be determined, but only indirectly. After a while Adam suspected what I’d done, but he still tried a ray in every single entry point just to make sure. This was before I told him the fewer rays you sent in, the better your score.

  3. [...] reminds me of sentences I’ve actually uttered myself, involving tag questions. But when I said these, I noticed, and identified them as things I didn’t mean to say. The [...]

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