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I went to buy something the other day using a credit card, but I screwed up somehow and the machine ended up cancelling the transaction. It announced this to me in a message that persisted on the screen for an interminable twenty seconds as “The transaction has been canceled.” For those twenty seconds, all I could think about — aside from my lingering fear that perhaps my card had been disabled and now I was never going to be able to get whatever doubtlessly important object I was trying to buy — was that that message just didn’t look right to me.

I’ve always written the past tense of cancel with two L’s. It’s cancelled to me, cancelling as well. Because I’m not as familiar with the canceled spelling, it occasionally triggers a strange “can-sealed” pronunciation in my head. This is presumably because my brain follows one of those standard heuristics of English pronunciation, that a single vowel followed by a single consonant and an e means to make the first vowel long and silence the e. That’s what we have in such words as rile, smote, or gale. And it’s especially prominent to me since it’s in my first name (Gabe).

This pronunciation heuristic is generally followed in tense changes as well; the verb pan becomes panned in its past tense, with two n‘s, to maintain the short a sound. Without the double n, it’d be paned, which I’d pronounce, well, like paned (as in double-paned glass).

And yet I’ve noticed more and more over the years that my countrymen disagree with me. In error messages I see a single l, leaving me even more depressed about the error. The AP Stylebook disagrees with me too. But why? What caused Americans to move away from the general English spelling heuristic?

"Cancelled" written on a chalkboard

Ah, much better.

I didn’t know, but if there’s anyone who could shed light on this, it’s Ben Zimmer. He puts it at the foot of Noah Webster, the American Samuel Johnson. Webster compiled the first dictionary of American English, and consciously sought to distance American English from British English, which he saw as corrupted by the aristocracy. Because Webster was codifying American English as a dialect separate from the standards of British English, this gave him the ability to make the changes he saw as appropriate to the American forms.

One of the major changes he wanted made was spelling reform, and so in Webster’s first dictionary (1828, available in searchable form here), we see the beginning of many Anglo-American debates: colour appeared as color, centre was switched to center, and our target cancel was listed with past tense canceled, present progressive canceling, and noun form cancelation.* His idea here was to push for easier or more natural or more accurate (relative to pronunciation) spellings. The u doesn’t get pronounced in colour? Gone. Centre isn’t pronounced cent-ruh? Switch it. Cancelled doesn’t have a double-l sound? Smash ’em together.

Some of Webster’s revisions took over pretty quickly. A quick glance at Google N-grams shows color surging in AmEng in the 1830s, and surpassing colour by 1850. Center took longer, but still surpassed centre by the turn of the century.

But others, like canceled, stayed on the sidelines. Oh, canceled grew in popularity, but it wasn’t until the middle of last century that the two forms evened out, and it wasn’t until the ’80s that canceled finally asserted itself as the more common form.** Personally, I think that sluggishness is because this spelling change doesn’t make as much sense as the others. The second l may be silent, but it tells you not to change the stem vowel’s pronunciation, and thus it has something of a purpose.

Google N-Grams chart of the slow rise of "canceled"

What’s interesting about all of this to me is that Webster was primarily a descriptivist, compiling a dictionary wherein he was looking to accurately capture the American form of English. But he prescribed a new spelling for a large set of words, and now his changes, which for years were held in lower esteem, are becoming the thing that prescriptivists demand adherence to.

Unfortunately, in his attempt to simplify matters, Webster introduced new confusion. I don’t see how it’s easier to remember not to put in an extra l when all the similar words double their last letter. And worse, Webster’s changes didn’t fully take. Sure, canceled and canceling are doing fine, but cancelation never caught on. Thus the AP Stylebook (and many other usage guides) have the inflections of cancel as canceled, canceling, cancellation, which is needlessly complicated in my mind.

And so that’s the deal. In American English, single-l canceled is the common form, almost thrice as common as cancelled according to Google N-grams. There will probably be a day where the double-l form will look as old and affected as centre in American English, but that point isn’t here yet. Use whichever form you like more. Me? I like the across the board double-l forms. (Of course I do; I was born just before canceled surpassed cancelled.)

*: Webster also included the fun adjectival form cancelated, which I hope to incorporate into my speech in the future.

**: I hope the non-Americans in the audience will forgive my focus on American English. None of these Websterian changes have surpassed the original form in the British English portion of Google N-grams, and I don’t have enough personal experience in non-American Englishes to say anything more than these numbers do.

It was early Saturday morning and I had woken up in someone I’d never met’s guest room. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to wake them with my preferred morning activity of singing along to The Go! Team, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and went off in search of grammatical ranting, figuring that would be a nice silent activity.

It was, but just barely. For it was that morning that I found the perfect grammar rant, and it was hard to keep quiet with the confounding mixture of disgust and glee it created within me.

I knew from the title that it had potential: what I’m hating (grammar edition). It starts off, as you might expect, with the ABCs of grammar rants: ad hominem attacks, belittling, and contempt. The author lists 11 things she wants writers to get through their “very thick and probably misshapen skull[s]”. And, as you again might have guessed, some of these supposedly important errors are neither important nor errors. The first three are:

  1. putting punctuation outside quotation marks (non-standard but acceptable in American English, standard in British English)
  2. using anyways (discussed here; non-standard but grammatical)
  3. using alright (discussed here; standard informal English, reviled by a vocal minority)

It continues like this, with each piece of the advice also containing that trademark prescriptivist viciousness toward people who dare to have a different idea of English than the author does. The point that the author hopes to convey is that writing is — to borrow a phrase from Lynne Truss — a zero-tolerance business. She even makes it explicit at the start:

“Also, don’t give me any horsey about how you’re lazy or in a hurry. If you expect people who read your work to take you seriously, you need to extend them the courtesy of proper grammar. Unless you think your readers are stupid. DO YOU THINK THEY’RE STUPID? DO YOU?”

Strangely, this rapidly escalating castigation is quite nice by prescriptivist standards. Normally, a prescriptivist accuses someone making a grammatical error of being an idiot themselves, rather than merely mistaking their audience for idiots. But it still carries that no-tolerance attitude. Any error is indicative of a moral failing, of being discourteous to, if not contemptuous of, one’s readers. It’s a very common opinion amongst amateur grammarians. But like so many others, including Lynne Truss (who famously left out a hyphen in her book’s subtitle despite railing in the book itself about people who do just that), today’s author has a double standard about these errors. No tolerance for you, but for me, well:

“*Inevitably, there are dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in this post. If you email me to tell me about any of them, I will eat your face.”

And there was an update:

“Well, I called it. Spelled a word [grammar, no less –ed.] wrong in the title. If you were one of the exalted few who read this before I corrected it, consider yourself lucky. […] it will probably happen again tomorrow.”

That, unlike all the rest of the post, is a fair position to take: errors are inevitable, and while you must strive to avoid them, you’re never going to be completely rid of them. But in the post itself, the author declares unequivocally that any errors in a piece of writing are discourteous to one’s readers and a tacit insult to their intelligence.

It was this contradiction that made me think that the writer thinks I’m stupid, not the occasional grammar errors. (Errors plural, because there’s another one that I’ll get to in a moment.) I agree wholeheartedly in forgiving errors, because we all make them. I agree as well that editing and trying to minimize the number of errors in your writing shows that you care about what you’ve written and you care about your readers.

But errors are inevitable, and they come from many different sources. Some are from a writer’s ignorance of the standard forms of their language, some are from a lack of careful attention (typos and homophones especially), and some are due to differences of opinion in standard usage between the writer and the reader.

To sit there and paint all grammar errors with a broad brush, as indicators of a lack of intelligence or couth, and then to excuse oneself for the same thing? That’s simply illogical.

To return to the error mentioned above, it’s a particularly detested one — one, in fact, that I’m surprised didn’t make the list of 11 errors. I’ve helpfully bolded the mistake, which occurred in the middle of berating anyways for sounding childish:

“Unless your a Brit, in which case we’re all just staring at your teeth rather than listening to you anyway.”

Actually, wait. Maybe the author is right and errors like that really do show that an author thinks their audience is stupid. That would explain the belief that we would find a Brits-have-bad-teeth joke fresh 13 years after Austin Powers ran them into the ground.

At various points in my life, I finished up a task and excitedly, dutifully, or resignedly announced its completion by saying “I’m done”. And most of the times, this was met with a congratulation, or at least warm indifference. On rare occasions, it was met with a succinct rebuke:

“Cakes are done. People are finished.”

That was all; no explanation given, and me left sitting there wondering why, if the subject of cake was going to be broached, it wasn’t to give me one as a reward. Because the response was so untethered to rational explanation, I would quickly forget about it, only to be reminded each time that I bothered to tell this person that I was done.

Well, I’m done. And so’s the rule. Let me turn the floor over to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU):

Done in the sense of ‘finished’ has been subject to a certain amount of criticism over the years for reasons that are not readily apparent.”

The reasons aren’t unreadily apparent, either; they simply aren’t. MWDEU traces the prohibition against humans being done to MacCracken and Sandison’s 1917 book Manual of Good English, which offers no explanation for its impropriety. In the near-century since, no one else has found a reason for it either. What passes for a justification is that one-liner I quoted above; for instance, in one professor’s list of “errors to avoid“, we’re given this explanation, posted in its entirety:

“30. If something has been completed, it is finished–it is not ‘done’. Remember, cakes are done; people are finished.”

It looks to me that the real reason why people started complaining about this usage is that it had two signs of the prescriptivist devil: it was a new usage, and it was a non-standard usage. To be done, the MWDEU reports, supplanted to have done for states of being starting sometime in the 1700s or earlier, which on a prescriptivist timescale somehow counts as “new”. Furthermore, the OED classifies this usage as chiefly Irish, Scottish, American, and dialectal, which to a prescriptivist is just a long way of saying improper. And usually finished sounds fancier than done, which no doubt contributed to the distaste for done.

But unless you believe in 300-year-old grudges, there’s no reason to be against people being done. According to the OED, Thomas Jefferson used it, as did Jeremy Bentham (the philospoher, not the Lost character) and others. There’s no grammatical logic why done and finished are any different, either. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if it weren’t for its snappy motto, this injunction would long ago gone the way of the dodo. Let’s try to help it toward that fate.

Summary: Cakes are done; people are finished? Nope. Cakes can also be finished and people can also be done. And stop mentioning cake if you’re only teasing me.

One of the major problems I have with hard-line prescriptivists is that they follow their convictions to the point of absurdity, arguing that something completely standard ought to be changed because it doesn’t conform to a rule they’ve decided is inviolable. Today’s example is aren’t I.

Yes, I has a problem. Well, it’s not so much a problem with I, but with its companion am. Unlike the other conjugated forms of to be, am doesn’t form a contraction with not. Are and is are flexible, contracting equally readily with a pronoun (we’re) or the negation (isn’t). But am apparently fancies itself too good to consort with a debased negation. And so we find a hole in the English language, a word that should exist but doesn’t: amn’t.

Unlike am, English as a whole is flexible, and so another word (aren’t) pulls overtime and fills the hole. And this earns the ire of the accountants of the English language, who fume and fuss that this isn’t in the job description of aren’t. Didn’t they negotiate an agreement between subjects and verbs that aren’t can work with you and we and they and other plural subjects, but not with I?

So there is a hole in English, and there is a word that fills it. But filling the hole requires breaking a common rule in English. What do you do? If you are like pretty much every speaker of English, you break that rule. But there are those who put rules above reasonability and consider aren’t I bad grammar. Let’s look into the matter.

History. Aren’t is first attested in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1794. Google Books offers examples from 1726 and 1740. All of these are instances with you or they as the subject. As for aren’t I:

(1a) Aren’t I rich? You know I am! Aren’t I handsome? Look at me. [1878]
(1b) “I’ve got threepence,” she said, “Aren’t I lucky?” [1876]
(1c) “Aren’t I?” seems to be thought the correct thing; but why should we say “Aren’t I” any more than “I are not”? [1872]

Aren’t I appears in Google Books by the 1870s, and writing is conservative with respect to spoken usage, so aren’t I likely appeared in speech much earlier. In the earliest attestation — (1c) from 1872 — aren’t I was already perceived as standard. No one still alive today spoke pre-aren’t-I English. So if it’s been standard for 130 years, why wouldn’t it be fine still? Here are some possible (but misguided) objections to it.

Logic? The primary objection to aren’t I is that it has subject-verb disagreement. You wouldn’t say I aren’t, so you can’t say aren’t I. The first part of that is correct, but the second doesn’t follow. After all, if I aren’t being incorrect blocks aren’t I, why doesn’t are not you being incorrect block aren’t you?

You can’t apply simple logic to language and expect there to be no exceptions. Emily Morgan has noted before that the logic of language is far more complex than prescriptivists make it out to be.

Informality? One site claims that aren’t I is unacceptable in formal writing. But that’s the case for all contractions, not just aren’t I, because they’re informal transcriptions of speech. The fact that aren’t I doesn’t appear in formal writing is no more a condemnation of it than the fact that aren’t you doesn’t appear in formal writing. (And, by the way, both do appear in formal writing.)

Alternatives. Now, let’s say you’re unconvinced that we should leave well enough alone, and you really want to fix aren’t I. How are you going to do it? Look at the prominent alternatives that are available for aren’t I: am I not, amn’t I, ain’t I. Am I not is fine if you’re being poetic or intensely formal or need to stress the negation, but in most cases, it’s going to sound completely unnatural and overly stuffy. Amn’t I is perfectly fine if you are Irish or Scottish, where it persists as a standard form, but it’s exceedingly rare outside of those Englishes, and you’ll look affected if you use it in another dialect. Furthermore, it’s hard to pronounce the neighboring m and n distinctly, so people may think you’re using ain’t I instead. Ain’t I, of course, used to be a standard form, and Fowler himself fought in its favor, but nowadays is one of the most condemned words in the English language, one that will make even most moderate prescriptivists write you off as ill-bred.

The fact of the matter is that there is no other option that is acceptable in most English dialects and at an appropriate formality level. This is why aren’t I has taken hold.

Suppletion & Syncretism. I want to conclude with two final reasons why aren’t I shouldn’t concern you: suppletion & syncretism. Suppletion is a specific type of irregularity, where one irregular form fills in (or overtakes) the regular form. Usually, suppletion is talking about a case where the irregular form is from an unrelated paradigm: e.g., better instead of gooder in English, or mejor instead of más bueno in Spanish. No one complains that better is wrong because gooder follows the rules better. With aren’t I, the suppletive form is only from a different part of the paradigm, not a whole different paradigm, but the basic idea is the same. There is a seemingly regular rule (add n’t to the conjugated verb) that in one instance is ignored in favor of an irregular form. If you want aren’t I done away with, you ought to want to see better consigned to the scrap heap as well.

Furthermore, it’s only suppletion from a contemporary perspective. Actually, we’re dealing with syncretism, where two distinct syntactic forms happen to look identical. David Crystal has a very nice explanation of the history behind aren’t I, which came from people mistaking an’t for aren’t in non-rhotic (“silent-r“) dialects. Genealogically, the aren’t in aren’t I and the aren’t in aren’t you aren’t the same. Which means that, technically speaking, aren’t I isn’t an example of subject-verb disagreement; it’s a case of mistaken identity of one aren’t for another.

Summary: No, aren’t I isn’t incorrect. It’s been in use for at least 130 years, the alternatives are all insufficient, and the “logical” arguments against it are fallacious. It’s no more incorrect than using better instead of gooder.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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