Great resource on grammar…
It’s taken a millennium and a half for English to develop into a language as rich and complex as a character from your favourite multi-part Netflix drama series – and just a few years for the advertising industry to batter it into submission like a stained piñata at a child’s party.
Baffling slogans have become the new norm in adland. Perhaps Apple laid the foundations in 1997 with its famous Think Different campaign, but things have since gone up a notch: in 2010, Diesel blurted out perplexing offerings such as “Smart had one good idea and that idea was stupid”. Then came Zoopla with its “Smart knows” campaign. Now we’re informed by Ireland’s flag carrier that “Smart flies Aer Lingus”. Who are these people called Smart and how can we avoid sitting next to them on our next flight?
“In adland, we don’t call it language-mangling, we call it ‘Language DJing’ or ‘Langling’,” jokes Alex Myers, founder of agency Manifest. “In reality it’s just lazy creative work. Copywriting is a lost art. Ad agencies need to ‘Think more good’.”
Eagle-eyed bad-ad fans can quickly notice patterns emerging: “finding” something and it being “amazing” appear with the same clockwork regularity as Love Island contestants on Instagram. See, for instance, Rightmove’s “Find your happy” and Visit Wales’s “Find your epic”. Or Lexus’s “Experience amazing” and Deliveroo’s “Eat more amazing”.
Clearly these odd turns of phrase are partially derived from the language of social media, while pandering to the notion of being easily turned into hashtags. But wouldn’t your English teacher have thrown a copy of Mansfield Park at you if you showed this much disdain for adjective and noun deployment?
When you see half-baked slogans – such as Hitachi’s “Inspire the next” – taking a mallet to the accepted rules of English, it can seem as if adland has taken a lesson from George’s Marvellous Medicine, and boiled a random concoction of leftover words and ideas together in a pot. Experience gibberish.
From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):
let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child
was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”
I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.
Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’t, wasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?
Amn’t I talking to you? (Anne Emery, Death at Christy Burke’s, 2011)
Amn’t I after telling you that, said Donal. (Sean O’Casey, Inishfallen, Fare Thee Well, 1949)
Amn’t /’æmənt/, though centuries old, is not part of standard English. But it is common in Ireland, used especially in colloquial speech though not limited to informal registers. It’s also used in Scotland (alongside amnae and other variants) and parts of England – the OED says the north, and west midlands – and occasionally elsewhere, such as Wales.
How amn’t came to be so geographically limited is not fully clear. Another variant, an’t, probably supplanted it in general usage because speakers wanted to avoid sounding /n/ immediately after /m/; see Michael Quinion and Robert Beard for brief commentary on this. David Crystal says it was therefore:
a natural development to simplify the consonant cluster. The final /t/ made it more likely that the simplification would go to /ant/ rather than /amt/, and this is what we find in 18th century texts, where it appears as an’t.
An’t, also spelt a’n’t, is the “phonetically natural and the philologically logical shortening”, writes Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage. It too fell from favour, but not before morphing in two significant ways. It gave rise to ain’t, which has its own lively history, and it also began being spelt aren’t (by “orthographic analogy”, in Crystal’s phrase), which is pronounced the same as an’t in non-rhoticaccents.
This explains aren’t I, which would otherwise seem a grammatical anomaly. Indeed, Gabe Doyle notes that its irregularity “earns the ire of the accountants” of English. But it has steadily gained acceptability in major English-speaking regions. Irish and Scottish dialects are the exception in retaining and favouring its ancestor, amn’t I.
Despite its vintage, its logic and its convenience, not everyone likes amn’t. It’s dismissed as “ugly” by Eric Partridge and as “substandard” by Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman describe amn’t I as “clunky” in Origins of the Specious.
Garner is incorrect, and the other pronouncements are subjective or prejudicial. Amn’t is not part of standard English, but it is standard and thoroughly normal in Hiberno-English. There’s nothing intrinsically unsound or deficient about it unless you prize minimal syllabicity, or prestige. It’s often called awkward, but it doesn’t feel awkward if you grow up with it. Even aesthetically amn’t has unique appeal.
Amn’t I with you? Amn’t I your girl? (James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922)
Ye don’t want me, don’t ye? And amn’t I as good as the best of them? Amn’t I? (Patrick MacGill, The Rat-pit, 1915)
So how is amn’t used? Commonly in questions: straightforward interrogative (Joyce, above), tag (MacGill), and rhetorical (see post title). These are the structures typically noted by lexicographers: Robert Burchfield’s revision of Fowler says it’s “used as part of the tag question amn’t I?”, while Terence Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English (2nd ed.) associates it with “negative first-person questions”.
Neither Burchfield nor Dolan mentions other uses, but amn’t is not so confined. It’s used, for example, in declarative statements of the form I amn’t. Though even Irish people, in my experience, usually say I’m not in such cases, some of them also say I amn’t.
I amn’t sure I should go on at all or if you’d like a line or two from your bad old penny. (Joseph O’Connor, Ghost Light, 2010)
And you, my poor changling, have to go to Birmingham next week, and I, poor divil, amn’t well enough to go out to far-away places for even solitary walks. (J.M. Synge, Letters to Molly, 1971)
A bit odder is the double negative question amn’t I not, which I’ve come across in both tags (I’m not drunk neither, amn’t I not) and more centrally (amn’t I not turble [terrible] altogether). A straw poll I held on Twitter suggests, unsurprisingly, that it’s a good deal rarer than other uses of amn’t, but several people still confirm using it.
My Twitter query also showed that amn’t occurs in more than just tag questions in Scotland, disproving a claim I’d encountered earlier. It prompted lots of anecdata and discussion on the word’s contemporary use in Ireland and elsewhere, and is available on Storify for interested readers.
If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here. (Athenian Gazette, May 1691)
Oh, Peader, but amn’t I Dublin born and bred? (Katie Flynn, Strawberry Fields, 1994)
Amn’t may grow in frequency and stature or it might, like ain’t, remain quite stigmatised in formal English. At the moment it’s undoubtedly a minority usage, with just four hits in the vast COHA corpus, five in COCA, and one in the BNC. Even GloWbE, with its 1.9 billion words from informal sources, offers a mere thirty-one hits.
Last year I retweeted a comment from @Ann_imal, a US speaker who said she had “started saying ‘amn’t I’ instead of ‘aren’t I,’ and no one (except AutoCorrect) has questioned me”. A search on Twitter suggests she’s not alone: amn’t has modest but undeniable currency in Englishes and idiolects around the world.
Social attitudes are decisive. Language Hat has noted that children acquiring language sometimes use amn’t – it is, after all, an intuitive construction – only to lose it along the way; a search on Google Books returns similar reports. LH used the word himself, and says, “I don’t remember when or why I stopped. The pressures of ‘proper English’ are insidious.”
In a neat inversion of the usual pattern, a commenter at Language Log recalls using aren’t I as a child and being corrected to amn’t I. More of this kind of parental guidance, or at least less proscriptive regulation in the other direction, may help amn’t gain more of a foothold outside Ireland and Scotland.
Not that I’ve anything against aren’t I, or ain’t for that matter. But if anyone felt they wanted to adopt amn’t and got past the social barrier, they would likely find it a handy, pleasing contraction. And that counts for a lot these days,
amirite amn’t I right?
It’s very common for people to assume there is a “correct” variety of English that follows grammatical rules, whereas informal speech relaxes those rules. In effect, we can let our hair down when we’re among friends and not worry too much about the rules of grammar.
This is all wrong. Whether we use formal or informal registers, we always follow complex grammatical rules. This is true of standard English and also non-standard dialects, which follow slightly different rules. For example, many non-standard dialects allow multiple negation — You ain’t seen nothin’ yet — whereas standard English doesn’t.
This is where tags come in. Tags are short interrogatives that come after an affirmative or negative declarative clause. There are lots of tag questions in English, aren’t there? You do understand this, don’t you? I’ve made this clear, haven’t I? Tags are characteristic of speech, where we generally want confirmation that the person we’re talking to has understood and is following the conversation (and they’ll usually give a nod of assent as a response). They’re also used in relatively informal edited prose. …a newspaper columnist will generally adopt a conversational style rather than a formal register.
While being informal, tag questions exhibit complex grammar. I haven’t remotely got space to give a comprehensive account of these rules, but here are one or two characteristics of tags. A tag has the same auxiliary verb as the one in the declarative clause. The subject is a personal pronoun orthere. It involves subject-auxiliary inversion (isn’t it, not it isn’t). And in the most common form of short interrogative, there is what linguists call reverse polarity. That means negation of a modal or auxiliary verb, or removal of the negation if it’s already negative. (There is a less common construction that uses constant polarity, but it generally implies irony or indignation: “So you’re a world authority on grammar, are you?”)
Moreover, there are irregular structures in the grammar of interrogative tags. You can’t say amn’t I: it’s got to be aren’t I. However, you can’t say I aren’t, or indeed I amn’t: it must be I am not. If you’re a native English speaker, you will automatically follow these grammatical rules. And if, like many Times readers, you’re a fluent non-native speaker, you’ll have had to painstakingly learn them.
Now, while English has many possible tags, there is one that’s quite recent in the language. It’s innit. Having originated in London, it’s become widespread in speech among young people. Formally innit is a reduction of isn’t it but it doesn’t strictly mean that, as it’s also used as a replacement for any tag question, negative or positive, and with verbs other than be.
Do you hate innit? That’s OK; it’s not part of standard English and there’s no need to use it. It follows grammatical rules too, though. As a tag that’s invariant to tense and semantically empty, it’s analogous to n’est-ce pas in French, which is a standard construction. Perhaps in another 50 years Times and Sunday Times columnists will be writing innit and no one will bat an eyelid. Rest easy: English will survive just fine.
Grammar is technically a pretty narrow term. It includes the categories we put words in—that is, whether a word is a noun or an adjective; inflections—like what the past tense form of a particular verb is; and syntax—why we say “I left it there” instead of “I it there left.”
But in the wild revelry that typically accompanies National Grammar Day celebrations, amid all the fireworks with their shimmering punctuation raining down, the term grammar turns into a giant carnival tent celebrating word choice, spelling, punctuation, and pretty much anything else you can think of that’s language-related.
And by “celebrate” we mostly mean bemoan the grammar crimes we commonly see and hear all around us—the misplaced apostrophes, the their where there is wanted, the hyperbolic use of literally. Rather than join in on the bemoaning, we thought we’d offer a little perspective on the tirades that may be volleying about during the holiday. What follows are some word uses that, while perfectly common and acceptable today, were all at one point considered “bad English”:
Both the adjective in “the above explanation” and the noun in “the above is an explanation” annoyed plenty of folks in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The “to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading” meaning aggravated critics from the late 1800s through much of the 20th century—despite the fact that the meaning dates to the early 1600s.
It was new in 1938 and disliked until it proved too useful.
The verb, as in “crafting a poem,” wasn’t common until the late 20th century, when people spurned it as an upstart. But it actually dates to the 15th century.
The verb in our above (ahem) sentence “National Grammar Day debuted in 2008” was frowned upon throughout the 20th century, and a transitive version like “Martha Brockenbrough debuted National Grammar Day in 2008” was considered even worse.
It was common in Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s, but an object of derision in the U.S. for a long time.
This word as used to mean “mode or way of thought” or “outlook” bothered some folks of a stodgy mentality in the early 20th century.
For much of the 20th century, you’d be criticized for reporting that something was said “out loud” rather than “aloud.”
Using this to mean “to happen” a hundred years ago was a big no-no.
The word was new in the 1940s and condemned by some as “journalese.”
It was described as “absolutely vulgar” (along with ain’t) in an 1846 address to high school students—criticism that was piled onto more than a century of previous objections.
We won’t presume to predict what pet peeves today will become common use in short time, but feel free to share your own peeves in the comments below.
In February 2009, a Twitter user called @popelizbet issued an apparently historic challenge to someone called Colin: she asked if he could “mansplain” a concept to her. History has not recorded if he did, indeed, proceed to mansplain. But the lexicographer Bernadette Paton, who excavated this exchange last summer, believed it was the first time anyone had used the word in recorded form. “It’s been deleted since, but we caught it,” Paton told me, with quiet satisfaction.
In her office at Oxford University Press, Paton was drafting a brand new entry for the Oxford English Dictionary. Also in her in-tray when I visited were the millennial-tinged usage of “snowflake”, which she had hunted down to a Christian text from 1983 (“You are a snowflake. There are no two of you alike”), and new shadings of the compound “self-made woman”. Around 30,000 such items are on the OED master list; another 7,000 more pile up annually. “Everyone thinks we’re very slow, but it’s actually rather fast,” Paton said. “Though admittedly a colleague did spend a year revising ‘go’”.
It’s been decades since I was a copyeditor, but I haven’t given up my long, trusting relationship with the Chicago Manual of Style. So when I learned that Chicago, along with the Associated Press (AP) had accepted the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun last year, I was ready to go along. Not everyone was, though. As gender-neutral pronouns gained wider currency, accounts of a ‘war over pronouns’ struck a weirdly familiar note, and I realised: I’ve been here before – twice.
In 1968, as a young copyeditor at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I was trained on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (1961), which had broken from the dignified, impeccable second edition by jettisoning refined ‘literary’ language in favour of the colloquial language that people actually spoke. This dictionary’s publication had created a sensation, literally evoking prophecies of calamity and the end of the world. Quoting William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in TheNew Yorker in 1962 that Webster’s had ‘untuned the string’ of harmony and order in the universe, and chaos would follow. But I loved the dictionary’s dismissal of inflated, pompous language, and happily followed its practice of removing hyphens and lowercasing everything within sight.
A few years later, as a manuscript editor at the New York branch of Oxford University Press, I helped engineer the next contentious usage shift. Feminism was acquiring legitimacy (much like non-binary gender identities today), and feminists pushed for nonsexist language, including alternatives to ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generics. In 1974, the McGraw-Hill Book Company – to my knowledge the first publisher to tackle the nuts and bolts of accomplishing this change – created the 11-page document ‘Guidelines for Equal Treatment of the Sexes’.
One day, my boss handed me this guide. I was known as ‘the feminist’, and I imagine she saw me as a guinea pig to test how it would go over. In any case, I jumped on it. The workarounds that McGraw proposed to avoid man and he – make the verb plural, ‘reword to eliminate unnecessary gender pronouns’, use ‘he or she, her or his’ (though I rarely had the nerve to put the female pronoun first) – were hedged with cautions to avoid producing ‘an awkward or artificial construction’. So I did my utmost to introduce these changes without damaging my authors’ prose, but it was a stretch. Even to me, ‘he or she’ seemed awkward and downright weird. The responses from my recalcitrant (almost entirely male) authors ranged from bursts of fury, to erudite lectures on English usage and the importance of tradition, to kindly pointing out how much more felicitous was their original phrasing. Feminism was weird and outlandish, too, and to most of these academics didn’t seem important enough to justify mauling their prose. I was pushing these innovations on my own; there was no policy at Oxford, as at McGraw. I got away with it because despite being young, female and without a PhD, in their eyes I incarnated 500 years of literary authority.
Today, it’s hard to remember the degree of resistance that nonsexist language evoked at the time. A long excerpt from the McGraw guide that ran in The New York Times Magazine elicited anguished responses: ‘A conspiracy is afoot to reform society by purging the language … innocent children [are] to be cast adrift from the security of traditional roles’ through the machinations of ‘Orwellian editors’, warned one letter. The honorific Ms, which had been around since the turn of the century but spread particularly after the launch of Ms. magazine in 1971, met with resistance for years. Sonia Jaffe Robbins, a copyeditor, then copy chief, at The Village Voicebetween 1975 and 1986, recalls encountering resistance even at this Leftist publication, for example from a theatre critic who insisted on referring to actresses as ‘Miss’.
Now comes ‘they’, and I admit it’s a tough one. Paula Froke, the AP Stylebooklead editor, gives two reasons for embracing ‘they’: ‘recognition that the spoken language uses they as singular’ and ‘the need for a pronoun for people who don’t identify as a he or a she’. The first ‘they’, as in ‘Everyone can decide which personal pronoun best matches their identity’, is what people have been doing for centuries anyway; most of us already use it without thinking. But the second usage, which raises fundamental questions about identity, society and the nature of reality itself, has met furious resistance.
A sentence like ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning – they hate tea’ violate deeply engrained rules of grammar. Saying ‘Lisa told me they love gardening’ calls into question basic categories of being. For many people, ‘they’ is the untuned string that portends discord and chaos.
Yet Webster’s third edition and nonsexist language did not cause the sky to fall. In fact, their innovations became normalised surprisingly soon. Diane Aronson, who began as a copy and production editor at Simon & Schuster in 1989, reports that most authors and editors of the self-help books she worked on there and at other publishers wanted to use nonsexist language. Authors, editors and publishers considered such language ‘important to create a welcoming environment for readers’, she explains.
Language evolves, and no amount of fulminating, or imposition of rules, can stop it. But more importantly, justice demands that we make the effort to accept ‘they’, ‘themself’ or any new gender-neutral pronouns that achieve widespread use. A language that collapses male and female into ‘man’ reflects a society that strips women of their separate being. And a language that collapses the spectrum of gender identities into male and female reflects a society that refuses to acknowledge the identity and very existence of a significant segment of its population. In the Trans Allyship Workbook (2017),Davey Shlasko writes:
The rule against using singular they is enforced neither because it preserves some consistent, objective grammatical standard, nor because it serves our communication needs. It is enforced because enforcing language norms is a way of enforcing power structures.
This issue of power is central to all three of these usage shifts. In each case, the shift gave a voice to a marginalised group: the non-educated non-elite; women; and those with non-binary gender identities. ‘They’ might not be particularly felicitous, but until we find something better, we need it. After years of working with ‘he or she’, I don’t think it’s clunky if used well, but I believe that we must drop it now, simply because it leaves out other gender identities.
Macdonald accused Webster’s third edition of impoverishing the language, coarsening it, and destroying its beauty. But people still write beautiful prose, and we will get comfortable with singular ‘they’, much as, centuries ago, people adapted to singular ‘you’ as ‘thee’ fell out of use. Once a copyeditor, always a grammar nerd, and I confess that ‘Carey makes themself coffee every morning’ makes me wince. But I’m willing to wince for as long as it takes – most likely, not very long.
Linguists call it collocation: the likelihood of two words occurring together. If I say “pop”, your mental rolodex will begin whirring away, coming up with candidates for what might follow. “Music”, “song” or “star”, are highly likely. “Sensation” or “diva” a little less so. “Snorkel” very unlikely indeed.
What do you think of when I say the word “rabid”? One option, according to the dictionary publisher Oxford Dictionaries, is “feminist”. The publisher has been criticised for a sexist bias in its illustrations of how certain words are used. “Nagging” is followed by “wife”. “Grating” and “shrill” appear in sentences describing women’s voices, not men’s.
One of the points of Oxford Dictionaries, part of Oxford University Press (OUP), is to show how words are used in the real world. And that is their response to allegations of sexism. “The example sentences we use are taken from a huge variety of different sources and do not represent the views or opinions of Oxford University Press,” they said in a statement.
In other words, it’s not the dictionary that’s sexist, it’s the English-speaking world. Why choose “feminist” over, say, “rightwinger”, “communist” or “fan”, though? As if not quite convinced by its own explanation, the OUP is now “reviewing the example sentence for ‘rabid’ to ensure that it reflects current usage”.
That can only be a good thing. But a word of warning: it might not deliver the answer you’d hope for. Perhaps “rabid” is collocated with “feminist” more often than with those other words (if the data the OUP uses includes online discussions, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case). Sexist assumptions find their way into speech and writing for the simple reason that society is still sexist.
Language, as the medium through which we conduct almost all relationships, public and private, bears the precise imprint of our cultural attitudes. The history of language, then, is like a fossil record of how those attitudes have evolved, or how stubbornly they have stayed the same.
When it comes to women, the message is a depressing one. The denigration of half of the population has embedded itself in the language in ways you may not even be aware of. Often this takes the form of “pejoration”: when the meaning of the word “gets worse” over time. Linguists have long observed that words referring to women undergo this process more often than those referring to men. Here are eight examples:
The female equivalent of “master”, and thus, “a woman having control or authority” – in particular one who employs servants or attendants. It came into English with this meaning from French after the Norman conquest. From the 17th century onwards, it was used to mean “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship”.
This once neutral term meant the female head of a household. Hussy is a contraction of 13th-century husewif – a word cognate with modern “housewife”. From the 17th century onwards, however, it began to mean “a disreputable woman of improper behaviour”. That’s now its only meaning.
The female equivalent of “sir”, a woman of high rank, is still used in formal contexts as a mode of address. From the late 18th century it was also used to mean “a conceited or precocious girl or young woman; a hussy, a minx”, alternatively, a kept mistress or prostitute, and finally, from the late 19th century, the female manager of a brothel.
From the 15th century onwards, “a woman who holds or exercises authority over a place, institution, or group of people”. Compare it with “governor”. Over time it drastically narrowed in scope and fell in status, coming to mean “a woman responsible for the care, supervision, or direction of a person, typically a child or young lady”.
This occupational term originally meant simply someone, usually a woman but possibly a man, who spun yarn or thread. Since a woman without a husband might have to rely on spinning as a source of income, the term became associated with unmarried women, eventually becoming the legal way to refer to one. The more loaded use of it to refer to “a woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid” begins in the early 18th century.
One of the most dramatic shifts in meaning, from the female equivalent of “courtier” – someone who attends the court of a monarch – to a form of prostitute, which is now its only meaning.
A 13th-century word meaning a female infant or a young unmarried woman quickly acquired negative connotations: from the late 14th century, in Langlandand Chaucer it is used to mean “a wanton woman; a mistress”.
Collins dictionary says that this is a 19th-century contraction of “sweetheart”, a term of endearment, particularly to women. From 1887, however, it is attested as meaning “a female of immoral character; a prostitute”.
Thinking about the male equivalents of some of these words throws their sexism into sharp relief. Master for mistress; sir for madam; governor for governess; bachelor for spinster; courtier for courtesan – whereas the male list speaks of power and high status, the female list has a very different set of connotations. These are of either subordinate status or sexual service to men. The crucial thing to remember is that at one time, they were simply equivalents.
These eight words show how social conditions leave their mark on the language. The process of pejoration may take place below the level of consciousness, but in historical perspective, the direction of travel is obvious. Have the achievements of the feminist movement percolated down through the many layers of our language? The Oxford Dictionaries controversy suggests not. Can the words we use to describe women avoid the fate of hussy, mistress and courtesan? There’s hope, but only time will tell.