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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.

Last month, we grammar bloggers were all abuzz about the Queen’s English Society and their quixotic quest for the instatement of an academy to regulate the English language. The Society have already been clobbered by Stan Carey, Mark Liberman, John E. McIntyre, and David Mitchell.

There is little I could add to this quartet of brilliant battery, so instead of a general discussion of the Society’s shortcomings, I want to look at one of the things they’re complaining about as an example of bad English. The QES’s complaints are petty, insane, or both. Case in point: they’d like to see Ms. abolished. Why?

  1. It’s an abbreviation, but it has no long form.
  2. It’s “unpronounceable” since it lacks a vowel.
  3. It was created by “certain” women who “suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status.”

Regarding point 1, this is matter of being beholden to word labels.  It reminds me of an objection I once received to preposition stranding; “preposition” suggests “in a position before”, and therefore a preposition at the end of a sentence, where it doesn’t precede anything, must be incorrect.

So it goes with abbreviations; if you want to be literal, an abbreviation is an abbreviated form of something. But Ms. doesn’t need to be a literal abbreviation to exist. It does exist, as anyone can plainly see. If it’s not an abbreviation, that doesn’t stop it existing any more than a mannequin not being human stops it existing.

Ms. isn’t an abbreviation, but rather a blend. It’s a combination of the two words Miss and Mrs., and it happens to inherit the closing period of the abbreviation Mrs., making it superficially resemble an abbreviation. That’s all.

And if we’re doing an abbreviation witch-hunt, what is Mrs. short for?  Missus, one might say, but that isn’t really a word of its own as much as a spelling of the pronunciation of Mrs.  Etymologically, Mrs. is an abbreviation of mistress, but the meaning of that word has changed sufficiently that you’d be stirring up a good deal of trouble if you called someone’s wife a “mistress”. I would argue that in modern English Mrs. itself is no longer an abbreviation, but a fully independent lexical item, much like Ms.

Regarding point 2, well, we all manage to pronounce Ms. pretty well for the lack of a vowel supposedly rendering it unpronounceable. How do we do it? Technically speaking, the standard pronunciation of Ms. doesn’t have a vowel. We were told in school that all words need to have vowels, since each syllable has to have a vowel, but that’s not quite right.  Some consonants can function as the nucleus of a syllable, just like a vowel. This is more apparent in some non-English languages, such as Berber or Slavic languages. For instance, in Czech or Slovak, you can apparently tell someone to stick their finger through their throat by saying Strč prst skrz krk (audio), a sentence where every word has a nucleic r in lieu of a vowel.

English does this, too, albeit more rarely. We often reduce and down to a syllabic [n] or [ŋ] between words (as in the restaurants Eat ‘n Park or In-N-Out), and word-final [l] and [r] are sometimes syllabic as well (as in bottle [boɾl] or pepper [pepr]). As you might have guessed, [z] is another syllabic consonant, which explains how we are able to pronounce [mz] as a stand-alone word.

Again, I don’t mean to demonize Mrs., but if we’re getting rid of vowel-less words, wouldn’t we have to get rid of it, too? Mrs. lacks a vowel orthographically, and has to trade its r for two [ɪ]s and an extra [z] just to get pronounced (as [mɪzɪz])! Now that’s unpronounceable!

Regarding point 3, this is a contentious point, and I don’t want you to think that I’m caricaturing the QES, so let me quote the entirety of their paragraph on it:

“This linguistic misfit [Ms.] came about because certain — note: certain, not all — women suddenly became sensitive about revealing their marital status. Or perhaps they were annoyed that they could not identify a man as married or single by his title. We won’t begrudge these women their complexes but surely there is a better solution to their problem than an unpronounceable buzz!”

Women, amiright? Well, no. Actually, the original push for Ms. was to avoid mistaking a married woman for an unmarried woman or vice versa.  Ben Zimmer found the first known proposal for Ms. in a 1901 newspaper column (probably written by a man), which says:

“Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss.”

This is certainly a conundrum that I face often. Ms. is not (only) popular because women rightfully feel no need to disclose their marital status*, but because it offers a way for both males and females to address a woman whose marital status is unknown.

Of course, the QES has a counter-proposal to make Ms. unnecessary. They propose introducing an unmarried male title to complete the symmetry with Miss and Mrs. and then to make the choice of titles rely on age. Despite the QES’s claim that this is “so simple and sensible”, I think any reasonable person will see that this is a far inferior solution, and so I won’t bother with further comment on that numbskullery.

Summary: Ms. isn’t some recent feminist invention, it’s pronounceable, and it’s a useful addition to English. There is no reasonable reason to oppose it.

*: Not to mention that marital status isn’t all or nothing. What is the right title for someone divorced, widowed, separated, etc.? Ms. is a convenient way to solve that problem of etiquette.

I spent the day today walking around the suburbs of Pittsburgh, soaking up the cold and the snow as best I could, storing it away mentally to be recalled throughout the long bright winter in San Diego. And with the all the lights, signs, and half-inflated Santas, well, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Or might one say Xmas?

One might of course, but in so doing one runs the risk of offending a few people. For instance, these folks, who view the use of Xmas as a way for the secular to omit Christ from Christmas. This is a widely held belief, and one that people often feel strongly about; a search for “Christmas not Xmas” on Facebook netted 200 groups and 34 pages pushing for use of the word Christmas instead of Xmas. It’s even led to poetry:

We surely would not write “X-ian”
For the Christians here on earth,
Then why do many write “X-mas”
For the day of the Savior’s birth?

But, as so often happens, the poem is mistaken. There is nothing devious or censorious about Xmas, or even Xian for that matter; X is an old abbreviation for Christ. And when I say old, I mean old: 900 years old in English, and 1700 in Latin/Greek.

In fact, it all goes back to the Roman Emperor Constantine I, best known for his giant marble head, his founding of Constantinople, and his much-publicized acceptance of Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. After the battle, Constantine adopted the labarum — ☧, a juxtaposition of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) as a symbol for Christ — as his monogram. Although the symbol ☧ itself and the abbreviation XP pre-dated Constantine, it was his use of them that really launched them to prominence.

So why use “Chi-Rho” anyway? Well, it’s an abbreviation for “Christ”, which in Greek is “Χριστός”. Note those first two letters, chi and rho. That means people have been abbreviating Christ with an X (or an XP) for 1700 years. In fact, these sorts of abbreviations and word games were something of a calling card of the early Christian church. The “Jesus fish” so prevalent on on the back-ends of cars has “ΙΧΘΥΣ” inside of it, an acrostic for the ancient Greek “ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ”, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior”. Before it became a foot soldier in the bumper sticker wars, this acrostic was used as a marker in the early Christian underground. Other common abbreviations — also known as Christograms — include the INRI (from the Latin for “Jesus Nazarene, King of the Jews”) on crucifixes, the IHS (from the first three letters in “Jesus” in Greek) on tombstones, or the contracted nomina sacra in early Greek scriptures. These abbreviations are throwbacks to the exciting early years of Christianity, not some modern plot to snuff out Jesus.

That’s all well and good, but what about the X in English? Was it just a Roman-era Christian symbol that’s only now being resurrected by heathens to cover up the Christ in Christmas? Nope. In the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written sometime before 1123, we see the chi-rho abbreviation in Christ’s mass, the progenitor of the word Christmas:

Her on {th}isum {asg}eare to X{ptilde}es. mæssan heold se cyng Heanri{asg} his hired on Westmynstre.

The OED lists further examples of such X abbreviations from then until now — not just in Xmas, but also in Xtian (for Christian). Aldous Huxley used it in 1915 (The ethics are identical with Xtian ethics), Ezra Pound in 1940 (They drove the Xtians out of Japan), and D. Jones in 1960 (what the present notion of Xtianity boils down to). So the poet I quoted above is completely mistaken; we surely might write X-tian for the Christians here on Earth. It’s not a common abbreviation anymore, but Xmas still is. Here’s even a neat example from Wikipedia, with Xmas used in a postcard in the good ol’ days around 1910:

So fear not, traditionalists! You can use Xmas without fear of offending God! The only concern with Xmas is that as an abbreviation, it’s a bit informal. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it on your letterhead, but if someone suggests you’re impious for using Xmas, let ’em know how traditional you are. 1700 years traditional, baby!

In the earlier post I wrote on the email/e-mail debate, I claimed that, were I backed into a corner, I would favor the unhyphenated version. However, today I was writing my comps paper (on speaker choice in the needs doing alternation), and found myself typing the word “e-mail” into the paper. It just felt right in that situation. And that’s why I don’t want to be tied down to just one form or the other; sometimes the dispreferred form is just better for a given task.

I’m bringing this up not to bore you with the details of my personal life, nor to toss in a plug for my upcoming paper, (although these are both unintended benefits) but because I wanted an excuse to revisit the hyphenation question and give a few arguments against a few arguments that the hyphen is necessary. Commenter mike — who, by the way, has a nice blog and a great outlook on grammar — suggested that this website had some “not-unreasonable” arguments for the hyphen. The arguments didn’t seem unreasonable, but also the author took pains to condescend to people like me and Mike and Donald Knuth, who use email unselfconsciously. And so I was forced to take pains to point out some flaws in these arguments for e-mail.

First off, the author claims that “Established publications edited by grown-ups” use e-mail. We’re so predictable, those of us engaged in this prescriptivist/descriptivist war, huh? The prescriptivists call the descriptivists ill-educated, or child-like, or focused on the lowest common denominator, or claim that we’re opening the gates to language barbarians. The descriptivists call the prescriptivists bloody-minded pedants, cantankerous old cads, or angry old coots. And so on. (Some muckrakers might even go so far as to attempt to claim that I have at times in the past engaged in such sophomoric name-calling, but I’m nearly positive that they’re mistaken.)

Anyway, the author had best hope that the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Reuters News Service, and the Guardian don’t catch wind of this slight. I think they all like to think of themselves as established and edited by adults — well-educated and grammatically precise adults, no less. Ditto the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists email as the preferred spelling of the noun and as an acceptable spelling of the verb. And it first attests email in 1982.

Okay, so respectable grown-up publications use email. Next point: e-mail is not a compound word, but rather a word headed by a single letter abbrevation for electronic. Thus the hyphen should be retained because “no initial-letter-based abbreviation in the history of the English language has ever morphed into a solid word”. At first, I couldn’t think of any example of this either. The author cites A-frame as one example, but in this case, the A isn’t short for anything, so we’re not looking at quite the same situation. Better examples would be A-bomb and H-bomb, short for atomic and hydrogen bombs. However, even this isn’t quite the same situation, because A and H aren’t productive prefixes in English, at least as far as I’m aware. It’s not like I can say A-clock and have people figure out I mean atomic clock. It seems to me that the e- prefix is relatively unprecedented, so you can’t dismiss hyphen removal out of respect for the past. Both e and i have established themselves as productive prefixes without hyphens: iGoogle, iPod, iMac; eHarmony, ecard, eBay.  I’m inclined to say these prefixes are proving themselves able to operate without a hyphen, regardless of what previous initial-letter-prefixes did.

And, finally, about the pronunciation of the unhyphenated version. No one but a contrarian would read the word email with the wrong pronunciation*; it’s common enough that people have memorized how it’s pronounced, and no reasonable mispronunciation of email sounds like another word. It is entirely possible for a word-initial e to be read as a long e [i: in IPA]; witness evil. And compounding/prefixing/suffixing words has always led to pronunciations that aren’t what you’d expect: cooccur, baseball, modeled. We are readers of English — complaining that a word doesn’t sound like it’s spelled is like complaining that a part of the ocean is too wet.

Summary: Look, there are arguments that e-mail is better with a hyphen, and there’re arguments that it’s better without one. None of them is compelling. Use the form you want.

[*An old (but not necessarily contrarian) potter could also confuse it with the word email, as in a type of ink used on porcelain, derived from the French word for “enamel”. This word is pronounced with an “eh” sound at the beginning. However, I can’t find this word attested on the internet, so I think the possibility of confusion is minor at the most.]

p.s.: I’m probably going to post quite sparingly for the next three to four weeks because I have to pound out my comps paper if I want to remain a graduate student. And I do, because it’s a pretty sweet lifestyle.

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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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