The Grammarphobia Blog

It ain’t necessarily so: Are you myth informed?

(The Grammarphobia Blog is featuring five daily quizzes this week to mark the publication of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. This quiz is about “ain’t,” “nucular,” and other bad boys of English.

(1) Was “ain’t” ever legit?

(2) Are African-Americans responsible for the mispronunciation of “ask” as AX?

(3) Was George W. Bush the first president to mangle “nuclear”?

(4) Can “literally” be used with figurative expressions?

(5) Is there a case to be made for the use of “like” to quote or paraphrase people? Example: “She’s like, ‘Get off my case, puh-leeze!’ ”

Answers:

(1) Although “ain’t” is now a symbol of the illiterati, it was routinely used by the upper classes as well as the lower, educated and otherwise, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. At first, the word was a legitimate contraction of “am not” and “are not.” But it fell into disrepute when people began using it for “is not,” “has not,” and “have not.”

(2) The AX pronunciation is also heard among whites – and on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, the word “ask” was spelled – and pronounced – “axe” when it first appeared in print in the 14th century. It wasn’t until the 17th century that “ask” replaced “axe,” but the old pronunciation hasn’t quite died out.

(3) Bush’s partners in crime include Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. A veritable “nucular” explosion!

(4) In standard English, “literally” means “to the letter” or “word for word.” And that’s what it meant when the word first showed up in English in the 16th century. But many well-known writers, including Thoreau, Dickens, Twain, and Thackeray have used the word to underscore figurative expressions.

(5) Linguists like this usage and call it the “quotative like.” Sticklers may grumble, but dictionaries now include it as informal speech.

For more on these and other myths or misconceptions about English, check out Origins of the Specious at your local bookstore, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.