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Q: Why do we say "aren't I"? ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: Why do we say "aren't I"?
Category: Reference, Education and News > Education
Asked by: bokajsen-ga
List Price: $5.00
Posted: 19 May 2004 03:11 PDT
Expires: 18 Jun 2004 03:11 PDT
Question ID: 348695
As in "I'm sick, aren't I?"

Where does this construction "aren't I" come from?

I suppose the correct wording would be "I'm sick, am I not?", and I
realise that "I'm sick, amn't I?" sounds odd, but is that the only
reason for this inconsistency?
Subject: Re: Why do we say "aren't I"?
Answered By: answerfinder-ga on 19 May 2004 04:19 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear bokajsen-ga,

The American Heritage Book of English Usage quoted by Bartleby, states
that it probably arose as an acceptable alternative to Ain?t, whose
use became seen as a sign of the ignorance of the speaker. The article
outlines the use of ain?t and goes on state, "The stigmatization of
ain?t leaves us with no happy alternative for use in first-person
questions. The widely used aren?t I?, though illogical, was found
acceptable for use in speech by a majority of the Usage Panel in an
early survey, but in writing there is no alternative to saying am I

The Longman message board discusses this very question:

"Various grammar references note the illogic of aren't I as a tag
question, but all describe its existence.

As a very formal alternative, you could use am I not, as in:
I'm a human being, am I not?

As well as the conversational:
I'm a human being, aren't I?

Some grammar references show that 'ain't I' has historically been only
marginally acceptable. Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (The Grammar
Book, Heinle & Heinle, 1999, p. 218) suggest that 'aren't I' arose
from the "strong social and educational stigmas against the use of
Whatever its background, 'aren't I' is indeed the current colloquial
tag ending for the first person singular."

In this discussion, it is suggested that it may have been as a result
of the pronounciation of ain't in certain dialects -
"Ain't would solve one logical problem of English grammar; it would
serve as a useful contracted inverted form in the question Ain't I?
Many prescriptivists prefer Aren't I in this situation; this is
illogical in conjugation, and for speakers of non-rhotic dialects may
only be a baroque spelling of one possible pronunciation of the
eighteenth century an't."

And the Linguistic Society of America makes the following comment ?
"But neither logic nor great age plays a significant role in the
labeling of variants. Consider 'ain't', which may be the English word
most despised by schoolteachers and pundits. Far from being illogical
or recent, 'ain't' is a legitimate phonological descendant of 'amn't',
which was the original contraction of 'am not'. It isn't clear how
'ain't' fell into disrepute, but once there, it left an awkward gap in
the system of negative contractions: We have "You're going, aren't
you?", "She's going, isn't she?", and so on, but surely no real person
actually says "I'm going, am I not?". Instead, people say "I'm going,
aren't I?", in part because they have been taught to avoid 'ain't'
like the plague; and here logic shudders, because while "You are
going, She is going," etc., are fine, "I are going" is impossible for
native speakers of English. The point of this example is not to urge
rehabilitation of ain't'--legislating language change is generally a
losing proposition--but to illustrate the linguistically arbitrary
nature of social valuation of the results of language change."

I hope this answers your question. If it does not, or the answer is
unclear, then please ask for clarification of this research before
rating the answer. I shall respond to the clarification request as
soon as I receive it.
Thank you

"aren't i" grammar "ain't"
"aren't i" grammar
bokajsen-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Excellent. Thank you!

Subject: Re: Why do we say "aren't I"?
From: voila-ga on 19 May 2004 05:06 PDT
A few more references on the amn't/ain't/aren't controversy:

Word Court - Atlantic Monthly

Language Hat

I've heard the terms "negative interrogative," "inversion verb," and
"irregular contraction" applied to this dialectical conundrum, but
never the 'Nixon diamond' conflict.  If you need a heavyweight
linguist on the subject, here's a go-to guy who published a paper on
the "amn't gap":

Prof. Richard Hudson
Dept. Phonetics and Linguistics
University College London't.htm

"The gap is due to a `Nixon diamond' conflict between two competing
values for the same morphological function required by the categories
`negative' and `first-person'."

The Freidburg Project (these folks look a bit beyond the pale for the
casual grammarian, but this doc is where I found Prof. Hudson's name):

Great question!

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