Tag Questions, NEV, and “Level” (verb)

I watch a lot of tennis on TV, and watched a real lot over the last fortnight, as the U.S. Open was contested. As with football/soccer, the American announcers have picked up some British habits and terminology.

Watching the tournament on ESPN was interesting in this regard, as one of its commentators was the British Jason Goodall, with his abundant tag questions (sometimes called “question tags“) and nationalistic elegant variation. (H.W. Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to refer to writers, especially journalists, who go to great lengths to avoid saying a word or name a second time.). Here’s an example of both in one (hypothetical) sentence: “It’s a vital game for the Austrian, isn’t it.” The absence of a question mark means the question isn’t supposed to be answered, is it.

One could hear the American announcers, presumably influenced by Goodall and the Australians Darren Cahill and Renae Stubbs, make ample use of both.

But I don’t recall any of the announcers using the Britishism employed, twice, by New York Times reporter Christopher Clarey. Referring to Borna Coric, Clarey wrote, “…the young, bristle-haired Croation [NEV and regular elegant variation!] kept grinding and swinging. He saved six match points and leveled the match at two sets apiece.” Then in the next paragraph, Clarey wrote that Stefanos Tsitipas “went up a break in the fifth before Coric leveled.”

That “leveled” doesn’t appear in the OED or most other dictionaries I checked. But it is in the unnamed dictionary that shows up in Google searches:

Americans would normally say “evened it up,” “tied it up,” or “evened the score.”

That reminds me of a British soccer term which I haven’t heard any American use in talking about soccer, tennis, baseball, or other relatively low-scoring sports. That’s “equalizer,” meaning a goal that ties the score. We would just say “the tying” run, goal, or point.

18 thoughts on “Tag Questions, NEV, and “Level” (verb)

  1. In football/soccer it would be equalised in the UK, but scores are generally levelled, not evened. Evening a score is left for grudges.

  2. The Chambers Dictionary app I have on this computer, which appears to be the 2014 paper edition, has level as “to make equal” with no reference to sport.

    Ending a sentence with “isn’t it” was one of the catchphrases of the character Ron Manager in the sketch show The Fast Show:

  3. To “level the score” is pretty common in Br English usage. A quick search on four dictionaries and all include this usage of the word. The OED does include this meaning – but the drafting of the definition is a bit obscure. Dr Johnson, Collins and Chambers are better (Chambers is still my “go to” dictionary).

    Chambers: verb (levelled, levelling) 2 to make equal.

    Collins: 10. VERB
    In sport, if a player or team levels the score, they score a goal or win some points so that their team has the same number of points or goals as the opposing team.

    OED: a. figurative. to level (a person or thing) with (now rare), to, †unto: to bring or reduce to the level or standard of; to put on a level, equality, or par with. Also occasionally intransitive for passive, to be on a par with (? obsolete). Also reflexive.

    Dr Johnson: To Level v. a. 4. To bring to an equality of condition.

  4. In British politics, the phrase ‘levelling up’ has recently been coined as a catch-all for tackling regional disparities across the UK.

    In sports commentary, ‘the Austrian’ and ‘the Croatian’ succinctly impart (background) information or context, as is more apparent in team sports – e.g. ‘the captain’ where the captain can’t be identified as such by his or her appearance. So none of these are just elegant variation, are they? Similarly, identifying a player by her nominal position (e.g. winger) when she is not always to be seen there.

    We’ve grown used to the American tag ‘right?’ but 50 years ago it could seem brusque and unsettling. My Texan uncle (US Air Force) seemed to use it less after living in Kempston for a year or two.


    It seems Americans seldom put tags at the start of non-question sentences such as ‘Aren’t you a good girl!’ – Has this declined, or was it ever thus? And… has ‘aren’t’ been suppressed in the US by the stigma attached to ‘ain’t’? And… would the song ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ now be cancelled as conspiring in sexual harassment/predation/etc?

    And… do Americans ever say ‘Such a good girl!’? And…and… I’ve used tags like ‘oughtn’t we’. Am I a bad person?

  5. 1. (British slang, esp. Asian, i.e. Indian, Pakistani, etc.)

    Contraction of “isn’t it”, “isn’t he/she”, “aren’t they”, “isn’t there” and many other end-of-sentence questions. For greatest effect use in places where it would make no sense whatsoever if expanded.

  6. I’ve never considered sports commentators as being representatives of any national brand of English. They speak their own language, hence the frequent parodies in comedy programmes, and presumably infect each other with the need to meddle (or should that be “medal”) with normal usage.

  7. That was a very ragged match between the Austrian and the German. I didn’t think Thiem was going to win it. The phrase that came first to my mind was ‘level the match’ which I must have heard it from sports commentators. Of course they mean ‘level the score’ and no doubt say that as well.

  8. Just realised a possible obscure exception! – ‘Ought’ should be followed by ‘to’ (we ought to…) but I’m sure I’ve heard (read?) ‘We ought, oughtn’t we.’ Anyone else, or am I imagining it?

    1. “I’ve definitely heard “We ought to, oughtn’t we?” instead of “We ought to, ought we not to?” but not (I don’t think) “We ought, oughtn’t we?”. I’ve also heard “We’d better, bettern’t we?” Instead of “We’d better, hadn’t we (better)?”. I’m sure I’ve mainly, if not exclusively, heard these formulations from fellow Englishmen.

  9. Last week (Oct 11-2020) NFL on CBS
    LV 24 KC 21 2nd 0:32
    “32 yard attempt , looking for the equalizer here”. The commentator sounds like an American to my English ears. Good news – the Raiders won.

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