Modal Verbs

7. The use of auxiliaries in tag questions, short answers and ellipsis

In English, the verbs used as auxiliaries are to beto doto have, and the modal auxiliaries. All of these auxiliaries can be used in tag questions and short answers.

a. Negative tag questions
Negative tag questions have already been discussed. An affirmative statement is often followed by a negative tag question, in order to ask for confirmation of the affirmative statement. In the following examples, the negative tag questions are underlined. Contractions are usually used in negative tag questions.
e.g. You are coming with me, aren’t you?
You like coffee, don’t you?

For the Simple Present and the Simple Past of the verb to be, tag questions are formed using the verb itself. For instance, in the following examples, the verbs is and were are used in negative tag questions.
e.g. She is very nice, isn’t she?
They were ready on time, weren’t they?

For the Simple Present and the Simple Past of verbs other than the verb to be, the auxiliary to do is used in tag questions. For instance, in the following examples, the auxiliaries does and did are used in negative tag questions.
e.g. He rides a bicycle, doesn’t he?
They ordered pizza, didn’t they?

For all other tenses and conjugations, the first auxiliary is used in tag questions. For instance, in the following examples, the first auxiliaries havewouldshould and can are used in negative tag questions.
e.g. You have worked all night, haven’t you?
He would have helped us, wouldn’t he?
They should get more exercise, shouldn’t they?
She can speak five languages, can’t she?

See Exercise 12.

b. Affirmative tag questions
A negative statement is often followed by an affirmative tag question, in order to ask for confirmation of the negative statement, or in order to ask for more information. In the following examples, the affirmative tag questions are underlined.
e.g. He is not very tall, is he?
They don’t want to work, do they?

The rules for forming affirmative tag questions are similar to those for forming negative tag questions. In the case of the Simple Present and Simple Past of the verb to be, the verb itself is used; and in the case of all other tenses and conjugations, the first auxiliary is used.
e.g. He wasn’t much help, was he?
They didn’t want to come with us, did they?
You hadn’t slept well, had you?
She can’t speak Greek, can she?
They wouldn’t mind helping us, would they?

See Exercise 13.

c. Short answers
Sometimes it is possible to reply to a question by means of a short answer, consisting of a subject, followed by the verb or first auxiliary used in the question. The rules for forming affirmative and negative short answers are similar to those for forming affirmative and negative tag questions. Thus, in the case of the Simple Present and Simple Past of the verb to be, the verb itself is used; and in the case of all other tenses and conjugations, the first auxiliary is used.

The following are examples of questions with affirmative and negative short answers. The verbs and auxiliaries are underlined.

Contractions are usually used in negative short answers.

QuestionAffirmative Short AnswerNegative Short Answer
  Is he ready?  Yes, he is.  No, he isn’t.
  Were you finished?  Yes, I was.  No, I wasn’t.
  Do you know them?  Yes, I do.  No, I don’t.
  Did we win?  Yes, we did.  No, we didn’t.
  Has he left?  Yes, he has.  No, he hasn’t.
  Will they need help?  Yes, they will.  No, they won’t.
  Could you help me?  Yes, I could.  No, I couldn’t.

It should be noted that the form of the verb in a short answer is not always the same as the form of the verb in the question, since the verb of a short answer must agree with its subject. In the following examples, the verbs are underlined, and their subjects are printed in bold type.
e.g. Are you ready? Yes, I am.
Were you excited? Yes, I was.

See Exercises 14 and 15.

d. Ellipsis
In English, words can sometimes be omitted from a sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence. The words which are omitted are said to be “understood”. This type of short form is usually referred to as ellipsis.

Short answers are one kind of ellipsis. For instance, in the example:
Can you speak Spanish? Yes, I can.
the short answer Yes, I can, means Yes, I can speak Spanish. The words speak Spanish are understood.

Another kind of ellipsis uses the words and so, followed by the verb or first auxiliary, followed by the subject.

For instance, the sentence:
He can speak Spanish, and I can speak Spanish too.
would normally be shortened to:
He can speak Spanish, and so can I.

Other examples of this type of ellipsis are given below. The verbs and auxiliaries are underlined.

Without Ellipsis: She is tired, and I am tired too.
With Ellipsis: She is tired, and so am I.

Without Ellipsis: They like ice cream, and we like ice cream too.
With Ellipsis: They like ice cream, and so do we.

Without Ellipsis: He wrote a letter, and I wrote a letter too.
With Ellipsis: He wrote a letter, and so did I.

Without Ellipsis: You had worked all night, and I had worked all night too.
With Ellipsis: You had worked all night, and so had I.

Without Ellipsis: You should get more sleep, and we should get more sleep too.
With Ellipsis: You should get more sleep, and so should we.

As illustrated above, the rules for forming the construction with and so are similar to the rules for forming tag questions and short answers. Thus, in the case of the Simple Present and Simple Past of the verb to be, the verb itself is used; in the case of the Simple Present and Simple Past of verbs other than the verb to be, the auxiliary to do is used; and in the case of all other tenses and conjugations, the first auxiliary is used.

See Exercise 16.

The construction using the words and so is used to express an affirmative idea, following an affirmative statement.

In contrast, a similar construction, using the words and neither, is used to express a negative idea, following a negative statement.

For instance, the sentence:
He cannot speak Danish, and I cannot speak Danish either.
would normally be shortened to:
He cannot speak Danish, and neither can I.

Other examples of this type of ellipsis are given below. The verbs and auxiliaries are underlined.

Without Ellipsis: She is not ready, and you are not ready either.
With Ellipsis: She is not ready, and neither are you.

Without Ellipsis: They do not own a car, and he does not own a car either.
With Ellipsis: They do not own a car, and neither does he.

Without Ellipsis: We have not forgotten, and she has not forgotten either.
With Ellipsis: We have not forgotten, and neither has she.

Without Ellipsis: They couldn’t find it, and we couldn’t find it either.
With Ellipsis: They couldn’t find it, and neither could we.

See Exercise 17.

English Grammar Lessons
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