January 2009



In the last few weeks, since my last trip to the UK, my media diet has changed slightly.

It’s become more British. Obviously I’m coloured by my investment in fantastic British television shows on DVD, but also by my listening to Guardian podcasts.

My main new addition is the 30 minute Guardian Daily, a newscast covering the top stories of the day. Obviously the newscast is British-tinted, focusing a bit more on British news than I might otherwise care about, but I endure because their global news coverage is top notch. The Guardian has rapidly risen to the top as my favourite global news source, after The Economist, which is also British. (In third place comes The New York Times.)

However, I’ve grown to hate with a passion one British-English trait.

It comes about when they make statements that they want to be questions. I can only describe them as prepositional leading questions—but linguists call “tag questions“:

“It’s raining out, isn’t it?”

Prince Harry is a tosser, isn’t he?”

Sometimes the prepositional leading question gets reduced to that delightful phrase, “innit?”, short for something like “isn’t it” or “is it not”. Actually, the BBC implies that “innit” is short for a whole lot more: “don’t we”, “can’t I”, “aren’t they”, “won’t I”, and “can’t he”.

I realize that I’m out of touch with American culture—I’m not watching that much current American TV (face it, Mad Men is perfectly scripted for its era)—but I don’t remember that many tag questions, and I have to confess that I find the frequency of tag questions in British English to be enormously disturbing. It’s not that I object to the occasional tag question, but it seems to me that the frequency that Brits seem to use them results from pure laziness. It seems to me that if you’re going to ask a question, you should structure it as a question from the start!

Of course, I sound somewhat like an old curmudgeon now, but I hope you’ll forgive me.

7 comments to …Innit?

  • LB

    I’m pretty sure this is linguistic evidence of Brits’ (sweeping generalization alert) lack of self-confidence – at the very least, it suggests our lack of conviction and need for reassurance. Perhaps it stems also from a general unwillingness to take a convicted stand for something, or in any way draw too much attention to oneself or criticism for arrogance.

    I agree – it’s really irritating, innit?

  • K in London

    But the German’s have the same type of thing….oder? When I lived in Berlin we used it all the time – even when speaking in English!

  • LB, I’ll back your second conclusion before your first.

    It seems that in Britain, to state without hesitation, and in explicit terms, what you think, is arrogant.

    It goes beyond peppering your speech with rhetorical questions. It seems one cannot get a modern Brit to use a simple declarative sentence.

    There is a monthly meeting between my German client and a British supplier, most often held her in Munich, in English. In between the German’s “we must…”, and the Pom’s “it might very well be that…”, they often end up at crossed purposes. Since I am (apparently) such an expert in the German psyche, the Pom often asks me afterwards: “I think we made real progress. What would you say?”

    “Please repeat after me”, goes my reply, “I recommend that…I recommend that…I recommend that…”

    The whole stupid affectation started, I imagine, as a way for the upper crust to sound less pushy. But in modern English, it just makes one sound weak and insecure.

    Some say that the mannerism which made Margaret Thatcher seem so declasse to the gentry was the fact that she actually made statements. (e.g. “There is no such thing as society…”)


  • Ed

    The whole thing is a bloody rot, innit?

  • Is that perhaps the flip-side to the explanation of “Not bad!” in Clavell’s King Rat, perhaps?

    The story-in-the-story goes that in order to not embarrass the receiver of lavish praise — even where appropriate — an outstanding accomplishment is acknowledged with a luke-warm “Not bad. Not bad at all.”


  • I’m making sure I stay off your lawn, should you ever get one.

  • @LB: Lack of “self-confidence”?! I’ve never really thought about it, but English is full of things signaling a lack of self confidence–like we all go to the restroom, even though we don’t rest….

    @K: True, True… I’ve never really paid attention to it in the German context, but my German teacher says that in Thüringen, the tag question is “…, gell?”–I haven’t heard it in the wild yet, but I am listening.

    @headbang: Toodle-pip?

    @Ed: Yes, innit?

    @cliff: I’m not familiar with the book–I need to track it down.

    @CQ: Good boy! You will be rewarded.