More Fun with Grammar

Consider, if you will, the following sentence –

I’m the epitome of tolerance, aren’t I?

Ignoring the veracity or otherwise of this remark, is there anything wrong with it, grammatically speaking?

If you search the web, you will find several sites which condemn it out of hand as “appallingly bad grammar”.   They expand the interrogative tag as “are not I”, pedantically point out that the verb to be is not correctly conjugated – the verb form does not agree with the subject – and swiftly move on to other prescriptive matters.

But they are wrong!   In fact it’s perfectly good English – as well as being exactly what most English speakers would say naturally.   Speakers of Scottish and Irish English follow other patterns, so no complaints from the Jockinese Charioteers, please.

The trouble is, the prescriptive grammar police haven’t done their homework.   They assume (never assume) that the aren’t in aren’t I? is the same word as the aren’t in aren’t you?   But it isn’t!

The formally correct tag is, of course, “am I not?” – I’m sure nobody will disagree with that.   Well, back in the olden days one said am not I? and in colloquial speech, this became contracted to amn’t I? – which is what our Jockinese friends still say.   Because English speakers have a problem pronouncing the mn consonant pair, the m was elided to yield an’t I? – first in speech and then in writing.

Now we get to the really interesting bit.   The a in an’t I? can be either short or long.   This is to some extent a dialectical choice, but the normal English speech preference is to make it long.   Compare this with can and can’t.   The a in can is short, but when we negate the word with n’t the vowel naturally goes long.   Can, but cahn’t.

Hence an’t I? was actually pronounced ahn’t I?.   To non-rhotic speakers (which most of us are), this sounds identical to aren’t I?   So about 150 years ago, it began to be printed that way, instead of an’t I?.

So when we say aren’t I?, we’re actually saying ahn’t I?, from ahmn’t I?, from am not I? – and it’s good, correct grammar.

Now don’t get me started on ain’t. 😀

Many thanks to Gabe Doyle and David Crystal

Author: Bearsy

A Queensland Bear with attitude

19 thoughts on “More Fun with Grammar”

  1. Interesting. I would probably say, “I’m the epitome of tolerance, aren’t I?” but I would more than likely write “am I not?”.

    It wouldn’t have crossed my mind that the former would be deemed ungrammatical, but what do I know?

  2. I will take your word for it, though I am inclined to agree with Araminta’s 1. But, answer me this: is it correct to say ‘4 times less/fewer than’, as in, there are ‘4 times less/fewer people in Scotland than in England’?

    It irritates me no end when people say it and does seem to be creeping into common usage more and more and by people and institutions who I feel should know better. I think it is wrong mathematically and grammatically, but I am open to the opinions of others.

    You can read here to see what others have to say.

    The fact that Newton said it does not make it right in my view. He also believed in Alchemy.

  3. G’day from Jockland.

    I have to say, Bearsy, that I do not recall coming across ‘amn’t’ as a usage in Jockinese. In the East, I think that we would use ‘aren’t’ just like the Southrons, possibly because we are rhotic speakers of the first water and thon’s a fine ‘r’ there just begging to be rolled.

    My learned colleague from Weegieland may come across it more often as I have heard Irish people using it and it may be yet another shibboleth that can be used when endeavouring to find out if somebody kicks with the left foot.

  4. Sipu, now then! (Yarkshire greeting.) Less is to little as fewer is to few. (First Aid in English, 1953)

  5. Janus, yes, I am aware of the difference though I would refer you to one of Bearsy’s earlier posts on the subject written while you were on sabbatical, I think. I was using the less/fewer alternatives, because when either is combined with ‘times’, it is wrong; in my view at least.

  6. Sipu – you are puzzling me, I’m afraid.

    • Araminta is not disagreeing with me, she is merely reinforcing the fact that she would use the formal register in writing, as would most of us.
    • I’m sure we’ve discussed less versus fewer a short while ago (uncountable/countable), so I guess you’re asking something else. Something to do with the “four times”? It’s a shame you’ve selected people, because there is some argument as to whether that noun is countable or not. Perhaps you could chose a non-contentious noun – item (countable) perhaps, or salt (uncountable) – and re-express your query, using the appropriate qualifier? I read your link, but I cannot follow the Russian chap’s awful English with any clarity. He doesn’t appear to understand English or maths, but perhaps I’m just being thick today.


  7. Och JM, it’s because you’re rhotic that aren’t and an’t sound different to you, though not to us. But I was only quoting my sources … 🙂

  8. Bearsy, I merely meant to say that, like Araminta I would say ‘aren’t I’ but write, ‘am I not’.

    Yes, people was a bad choice.

    So, is it correct to say that there is ‘4 times less petrol in my tank than in yours’?

  9. Ah, thanks Sipu – I was being a little dense, I suppose; I plead insanity. 🙂

    Well, it doesn’t feel right to say I have four times more petrol than you, does it? One would probably say I have four times as much petrol as you. So I’ll guess that four times less is not exactly a good construction. It feels clumsy to me. But I doubt that it’s breaking any “grammar rules”, and it is in common use. It’s a damn good question! 🙂

  10. ‘I cannot follow the Russian chap’s awful English with any clarity. He doesn’t appear to understand English or maths, but perhaps I’m just being thick today.’

    Oh, come on, it’s not that bad. Most of it makes perfect sense. He is actually a Law professor from UCLA. So, maybe the math(s) is dodgy. Rather than accuse you of ‘being thick today’, I think you are perhaps suffering from ‘can’t be arsed syndrome’. It tends to afflict people late in the evenings after dinner and a few glasses of wine. 😉

  11. I think that even in speech I would use “am I not?”. I realise that this may be seen as giving more emphasis to the original statement, of course. Possibly even a touch of my Glaswegian heritage there – I am correct, am I not?

    One recipe may use four times less salt than another, but perhaps require 15 fewer minutes of cooking time.

  12. With all due respect, Sheona, I was addressing the validity of the shortened form, not comparing the desirability of its use in either formal or conversational registers. 😦

    15 fewer minutes is fine, but I agree with Sipu that four times less salt is mathematically convoluted, and grammatically awkward. One of the recipes uses a quarter of the salt of the other …

    Sipu – not at all. When he equated less with a minus sign and then talked about Russian hippopotami, I lost the will to live. 😥

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