Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.
Have you ever wondered why we say, “He is, isn’t he?” and “She is, isn’t she?” but we don’t say “I am, amn’t I?” (though you might say this if you lived in certain parts of Scotland and Ireland, where amn’t is still commonly heard).
According to Oxford University lexicographer Michael Quinion, in his wonderful website World Wide Words, amn’t actually has quite a long lineage, dating back as far back as the year 1600. He tells us, though, that amn’t was never as popular as the contraction an’t, which used to be used in place of are not and is not. To illustrate, Quinion cites none other than the brilliant Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, who in his 1710 work, Journal to Stella, penned the immortal line:
“An’t you an impudent slut?”
At the time the letter a was often pronounced more like ay. Consequently, people began to spell an’t as ain’t, and it became a perfectly acceptable and commonly used word. But eventually those persnickety 18th-century prescriptivists got their hands on it—calling it nothing less than a “vulgar corruption!”—and condemned ain’t along with its little buddy an’t.
Quinion explains that “another pronunciation of an’t, in which the vowel was drawn out and somewhat drawled eventually led to the spelling pronunciation aren’t, with a silent r. This explains why ‘aren’t I’ exists, which is otherwise a puzzle, since there’s no obvious way that it could have been formed from ‘am I not’.”
Many grammarians dislike “aren’t I” because of the incongruity created when a first-person singular pronoun meets a plural verb. Despite this, “aren’t I” has become accepted in standard English. The alternative, of course, is the uncontracted phrase “am I not,” which the Oxford Guide calls “stuffy,” though the Guide claims that most Canadians use it in writing.
I ain’t too sure about that.
Previous post: Less is more
Next post: Things that dangle