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February 9th, 2005

The Honorable / am I not? / pronouncing often

by Barbara Wallraff

Myron Bordman, of West Bloomfield, Mich., writes: “After much urging, I got my wife to run for the library board. Lo and behold, she came in second, with more than 12,500 votes. As an elected township official, is she now entitled to be addressed as ‘the Honorable,’ like other elected persons?”

Dear Myron: I wanted to give you authoritative information, so I took your question to the Library of Congress. Anthony Paez Mullan, a reference specialist there, told me, “The short answer to your question is no.” He cited “Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official & Social Usage,” which says: “The honorable is the preferred title used in addressing most high-ranking American officials in office or retired. These include some presidential appointees, federal and state elective officials, and mayors. As a general rule, other county and city officials are not so addressed.”

If I were you, I’d call my wife “the Honorable” anyway. I just wouldn’t do it in public.

J. Brennan, of Nassau, N.Y., writes: “There doesn’t seem to be an acceptable contraction for the negative interrogative of ‘I am,’ as in ‘I’m a real language enthusiast, am I not?’ ‘Am I not’ sounds stilted, and ‘aren’t I’ is wrong, because the subject and verb do not agree. What’s the best way to express this?”

Dear J.: “Ain’t” would do the job nicely if only it weren’t thought of as illiterate. “Ain’t” came into use in the late 1700s, when it could mean “am not” as well as “is not” and “are not.” Then people began using it to mean “have not” and “has not” too, as in “I ain’t read the paper yet.” Because “ain’t” filled in for so many different words, mainly among the lower classes, schoolteachers and grammarians took against it. Most contractions, it’s true, play much more specific roles. Not even words as closely related as “have” and “has,” or “do” and “does,” share negative contractions: “haven’t,” “hasn’t,” “don’t,” “doesn’t.”

So “ain’t” ain’t good English -- but I’ll bet you already knew that. In casual usage, “aren’t I” is fine. Even highly articulate people say it. In anything like a formal context, though, I’m afraid we’re stuck with “am I not.” Or else we can find other words entirely. For instance: I am a language enthusiast -- wouldn’t you agree?

Susan Marks, of Iowa City, Iowa, writes: “My college-age son insists on pronouncing the ‘t’ in ‘often.’ How can I convince him to stop? Or should I?”

Dear Susan: Decades before your son was born, some dictionaries began giving the pronunciation with the “t” as well as the one without. Contemporary dictionaries all give both pronunciations; it’s not truly shameful to pronounce the “t.”

But you’re right that “off-en” is traditionally preferred, and even today language experts recommend it. For instance, Garner’s Modern American Usage calls “off-en” “the educated pronunciation.” When your son says “off-ten,” maybe you should respond with to how you sound” -- and be sure to pronounce the “t” in “listen.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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