I amn’t, am I?

 I am not  I’m not  I’m not  Am I not?  Aren’t I?
 You are not  You’re not  You aren’t  Are you not?  Aren’t you?
 (S)he is not  (S)he’s not  (S)he isn’t  Is (s)he not?  Isn’t (s)he?
 We are not  We’re not  We aren’t  Are we not?  Aren’t we?
 You are not  You’re not  You aren’t  Are you not?  Aren’t you?
 They are not  They’re not  They aren’t  Are they not?  Aren’t they?

Spot the odd ones out?

I’ll give you a little time…

Ok,

If you said the second I’m not and Aren’t I, then congratulations. Why is it that we can’t say I amn’t and Amn’t I respectively in place of those two?

(If you’re a Hiberno-English speaker, then you’re probably now thinking Hang on, I can say them, everybody does! Well yes, they’re qute common in Ireland, and Scotland too, but you’d be hard pressed to find them in many other places, and to a lot of native speakers they would most certainly qualify as non-standard)

Structurally and grammatically, we use identical forms (e.g. He isn’t and Aren’t they?), so why not amn’t I and I amn’t?

As with a lot of conventions of the English language, it’s all about sound. Most English speakers simply don’t like to have m and n together in the same syllable. It just sounds off (though not so much with an Irish accent, apparently). This is more than likely why we have so many English words with silent n‘s following an m: column, autumn, condemn etc. Just try pronouncing those n‘s and see how far it gets you.

Which is why alternative forms such as the now defunct an’t developed, as well as the American-English ain’t which is of course still going strong.

Which is fair enough really. Much as I can be a stickler for following grammar rules, there’s no point following them to the point of saying something that doesn’t come naturally to either the tongue or ear. I do find it ironic though, when people insist that amn’t is wrong and can’t fathom how someone could think it right. Very often those same people are the ones who believe themselves to have impeccable grammar, yet if they did, they would be able to acknowledge the grammatical logic of amn’t, if not the practical logic. Sadly, it says to me that for some, grammar pedantry is about being seen to be right and simply following conventional usage, rather than than thinking in any great depth about the tension between grammar and usage.

Because what the curious case of amn’t shows us, is that the English language we use everyday (as well as what we might think to be its more incontrovertible rules)  is formed at the point where grammar and usage meet and have a polite agreement about how to proceed. Grammar rules are absolutely crucial to understanding language, but sometimes we reach a point where common sense prevails and communication becomes paramount, and that’s what’s really important, ain’t it?

 

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