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October 1st, 2008

Amn't I? / prepositions quiz winners

by Barbara Wallraff

Jim Boyce, of Kingston, Ontario, writes: “When I was a child living in Scotland, I heard Glaswegians often use the phrase ‘amn’t I,’ as in ‘I’m a clever boy, amn’t I?’ While I realize that ‘aren’t I’ rolls off the tongue more easily, I wonder what the justification is for using ‘are not’ rather than ‘am not’ with the first-person singular.”

Dear Jim: We can’t go back in time to give the good citizens of the Glasgow of your youth another listen, but based on what the Oxford English Dictionary reports, I suspect they were actually saying, “an’t I.”

The contraction “an’t” came into being in the 18th century, when, logically enough, it was used to mean both “are not” and “am not.” However, by the end of the 1700s, people began to say “aren’t” for “are not” and “ain’t” for “am not.” Critics promptly took against “ain’t,” arguing it wasn’t a proper contraction because it included letters that “am not” didn’t, and calling it illiterate. Even though they had nothing better to suggest (isn’t that the way of critics?), the objection stuck, and “ain’t” was banished from proper English. Throughout, “an’t” hung around on the fringes -- as it probably continues to do.


The answer to the prepositions quiz I published a couple of weeks ago is “teachers pet.” The assignment was to give me the first letters of the correct phrases on the quiz, and that’s what the letters spelled. Never mind that “teachers” would, as some of you pointed out, generally be written with an apostrophe. A randomly chosen reader who got the answer right wins an autographed copy of my book “Word Court.” That would be Sharon Gourwitz, of Novi, Mich. -- to whom, congratulations! Sharon, the book is on its way to you.

Dayle Zatlin, of Glenmont, N.Y., besides acing the quiz, wrote: “I’d love to know how many people answer correctly. I work in public relations, and it’s extremely difficult to find job candidates who can write.” Dayle, you’ll be glad to learn that most readers who responded got the answer right. Anyone who did -- interested in a job in PR? If so, let me know, and I’ll tell Dayle.

Bonnie Kohler, of Harrison Township, Mich., who also aced the quiz, mentioned that she’d found the phrase “substitute with” confusing. Bonnie, it confuses me too, and if somebody doesn’t stop it in its tracks, pretty soon “substitute” will give everyone trouble. People have started saying things like, “May I substitute the fries with a salad?” when they should be saying, “May I substitute a salad for the fries?” That is, they treat “substitute” as a synonym for “replace,” whereas it’s really more like the reverse.

A number of readers got a different item wrong, calling “forbidden from” correct. I have to admire them for goofing up my neat, obvious “teachers pet” with a superfluous “f” because they believed they were right. But “forbidden to” is standard. Sample use, from a play by the Irish wit Oscar Wilde: “We (women) have a much better time than they (men) have. There are far more things forbidden to us than are forbidden to them.”

It’s still true! But I digress. To find out more about the phrases on the quiz, visit the Library on my Web site, www
.wordcourt.com, and click on the newspaper archives, at which you’ll see me pointing.

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

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