Tag Questions Are Useful, Amirite?

From this week’s “THE WORD” column in The Boston Globe, by Wordnik founder Erin McKean:

You know what tag questions are, don’t you? Tag questions are those little questioning upticks, usually found at the end of a sentence — like that don’t you? — that grease the conversational wheels. Linguists see these questions as coming in two different flavors: the kind that ask for information or confirmation (“you’ve got the tickets, right?”), called “modal” tags, and the kind that try to connect with the hearer’s feelings, softening a statement or opening the door for more conversation, called “affective” tags (“that was certainly unexpected, wasn’t it?”).

Since they help keep information flowing, you’d think that tag questions would be appreciated for their importance to the language, or at least held up as a useful communications tool, but in fact, they’re almost ignored, and occasionally even mocked.

Read the full column here.


“It used to be my little secret, my secret that is until I found out that many of the writers I know practice the same habit. We love to read the dictionary. Many times I have pulled out the dictionary to look up the spelling of a particular word and then another word on the page catches my eye. Twenty minutes later I am still engrossed in the dictionary, browsing through the less familiar definitions.” —Creating Copy by William Ackerly

vacuum tube schematicIt’s true for more than just advertising copywriters: people love the serendipity of a dictionary. They like to get lost for a while, to be distracted, to learn something new.

We like to do that, too, so we’ve made many ways to explore Wordnik.

For example, you can explore another user’s lists. You can look at the related items for a word. You can check out zeitgeist and see what other words people are visiting right now.

But for my money, tags are the feature that offers the most subtle pathways to the unexpected. You can find tags on the right-hand side of a word’s main page.

There’s nothing particularly Linnaean about tags. They’re not meant to be universal. No governing body is going to insist on a hierarchy, a structure, or a form. Unlike Wordnik lists, which can have a mission statement (such as “words I found while reading Great Expectations by Charles Dickens“), tags’ intentions are usually silent.

Tags are personal. They are a way of classifying a word in a way that suits you. Beyond “don’t be a knucklehead,” there aren’t really any rules. You can use short tags, long tags, tags in other languages. You can tag a lot or a little. You can let that basic human need to sort and organize take over. Tag like a maniac in any way that is useful to you or the world.

In lieu of rules, I offer two tag guidelines that have been helpful to me:

1. Make your tags true as far as you know.
2. Make your tags memorable to you.

That way, you’ll have left clues for yourself (if you forget the word) and for other serendipiters who come across the same word. (See, I used a new word there and then tagged it with “neologism.”)

Tags are so personal that often the only obvious intention behind a tag is to demonstrate a connection between two words. For example, if someone tags the word basilect with language, then there’s a pretty good chance that basilect has something to do with language. That’s about as much as we can glean.

However, if someone tags the word language with cvccvvcv, most people are going to be mystified. It doesn’t even look like a word! But there was indeed a connection there for somebody, and, it turns out, the tags are useful if you need to know something about the orthography of a set of words. (Hint: each “c” stands for “consonant” and each “v” stands for “vowel.” Full explanation here.)

Remember that a word can both be tagged and can be a tag itself. At the top of every word’s tag page you’ll see “words tagged” with the word you’re looking at and at the bottom you’ll see “the word has been tagged.” Check out the tag page for neologism to see what I mean.

If you want a bit of guided serendipity, you can browse the tags made by any user who has a public profile. Here are some of mine.

If you’re looking for a little more about tagging from an insider’s point of view, I recommend the book Tagging: People-powered Metadata for the Social Web.

Happy tagging!

Photo by Paula Rey. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Tag All Words in a List

Per the request of Skipvia and others, you can now tag all words in a list in one fell swoop. Click on the ‘add tags’ link on any list page, on the left below the list name.

This tags every word in the list, not the list itself.

If you want to tag every word in a list except for a few, you can bulk-tag the list, then go in to the individual words and remove the tag where not appropriate. So you can tag 498 of the words in a 500 word list in 3 steps, rather than 498.

This is the heart of Wordie: helping you waste time more efficiently.

Wordie Mobile, New Feature Roundup

This weekend saw the arrival of Wordie Mobile, a version of the site optimized for phones and other small-screen devices. This makes it much easier to add a word to your lists if you’re at the library, or on the bus, or wherever: Just point your phone browser to http://wordie.org/m. Thanks to Crystalover at Twitter for inspiring this. Other new goodies launched in the last week or two:

  • Updated, more wordie-esque design for Errata. Obviously.
  • Paging for past comments. You can now scroll back through all 36,367 of them.
  • Ads on every page, every day! Ok, so that’s not exactly a feature, but, well, baby needs shoes.
  • You can now leave comments on tag pages, like so.
  • A new search page, which lets you search comments, lists, or, via the Gooble, everything at once.
  • More sort options for lists, and maybe some other little niceties like that; I’ve probably forgotten something.
There’s more good stuff on deck, though the pace of development may slow a bit as I focus on other projects. More on that soon.

Tagging Words

Wordie was originally conceived as a joke: all tags, no content*. Well, the punchline has finally arrived. This weekend I added tagging**.

Tagging is a way to categorize things by adding descriptive metadata to them in the form of, well… words. On Wordie this may seem like gilding the lily, but tagging has been repeatedly requested since the site launched, and for good reason. Among other things, tags allow:

  • Glossaries and topical dictionaries. Want to create a glossary of beer-related terms? Use tags: http://wordie.org/tags/beer

  • Collaborative lists. Want to get a bunch of your pirate friends together and create the ultimate list of pirate words? Have everyone add a ‘pirate’ tag to their piratish words, and bob’s your uncle: http://wordie.org/tags/pirate

  • Lists for an event or organization. Create lists specific to a class or conference by having participants use a custom tag like MIT6001 or DefCon15.
  • Related Words. Want to show all synonyms and antonyms of a word? Use tags.

Tagging is useful right off the bat. And once a critical mass of tags has been entered it gets more useful still, as it becomes possible to extract interesting information based on site-wide tagging patterns. For starters, at the bottom of each page there’s a link to a site-wide tag cloud, showing the last 500 tags entered. Like the comments page, it’s a good view into what’s current and another way to watch Wordie happen.

It’s also a good opportunity for me to pimp another site of mine, TagsAhoy.com, which lets you search your personal tags across variety of services. It now supports Wordie. Yes, I’m mildly obsessed with tagging.

Since this launched quietly a few days ago, over 1,000 tags have been added, and as the pace picks up and more viewing and sorting options become available it’ll only get more interesting***. Thanks to everyone who gave feedback as this was developed, and to everyone who has added or plans to add tags to their words. Fun for you, fun for the whole family.

* It’s a joke no longer; it’s now the best site on the Internet, ever.
** If you’ve been on del.icio.us since 2004, if you think tagging is passé, well, it’s as useful as ever, so shut up! I have yet to see a better ad-hoc organizational technique, and I still believe. Back to the future!
*** Check out Tim’s great blog post on when tags work and when they don’t. Since many of the benefits of tagging on Wordie accrue to the person doing it, I’m hoping we fall into the “when they do” column.