The Corner

Is I Is or Is I Ain’t Grammatical?

“Dear Mr. Derbyshire—I suspect you have been over this point many times

already so I am sorry to bring it up to you again. In your most recent

essay, ‘Here to Stay’, in which, yet again, you express my own thoughts

better than I can, you write, ‘Aren’t I ashamed of myself?’ a verbal ‘macro’

which expands

into the preposterous ‘Are I not ashamed of myself?’ I think you should

have written, ‘Ain’t I ashamed of myself?’ the verbal macro which expands

into the sensible ‘Am I not ashamed of myself?’”

I thought aren’t I? sufficiently well established by now. Neither Fowler

nor Follett seem to have anything to say about it, and I took a quick trawl

through Jespersen, but his indexing is so crappy you really have to spend

time reading through whole articles, which I can’t be bothered to do.

Mencken, however, says this:

“A shadowy line often separates what is currently coming into sound usage

from what is still regarded as barbarous. No American of any pretensions, I

assume, would defend ain’t as a substitute for isn’t, say in ‘He ain’t

the man,’ and yet ain’t is already tolerably respectable in the first

person, where English countenances the even more clumsy aren’t. *Aren’t*

has never got a foorhold in the American first person singular; when it is

used at all, which is rarely, it is as a conscious Briticism. Facing the

alternative of employing the unwieldy ‘*Am* I not in this?’ the American

turns boldly to ’Ain’t I in this?’ It still grates a bit, perhaps, but

aren’t grates even more. Here, as always, the popular speech is pulling

the exacter speech along, and no one familiar with its successes in the past

can have much doubt that it will succeed again, sooner or later.”

That was written between 1919 and 1936, though, and my impression is that

*aren’t* has got wider currency in the USA since then. I wouldn’t rule out

the possibility that I am guilty of a Briticism, though. You can take the

boy out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the boy.

The Columbia guide comes down hard on

*ain’t* but offers no verdict on aren’t. Ain’t sounds quaint to my

ear — puts me in mind of Huckleberry Finn; the logical amn’t I have never

heard; I seem to recall seeing it in old literature, but a scan on the works

of Shakespeare turns up no occurrences. I think this is one of those

“knots” or “singularities” that occur in every language, where nobody quite

know how to say it.


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