The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you agin us?

Q: In a 2009 posting (yes, I’m a little behind), you say “again” is only an adverb now, though it used to be a preposition as well. But surely the preposition is still with us in the dialect word “agin,” as in, “If you ain’t with us, you’re agin us!” Just a thought.

A: The word “agin” is described in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) as a dialectal or regional variant of the preposition “against.”

American Heritage labels “agin” as a “chiefly Upper Southern US” regionalism.

But there’s more to the story. In their speech, some people commonly pronounce the adverb “again” uh-GIN, so it sounds as if it were spelled “agin.”

This widespread pronunciation isn’t dialectal or regional, in the opinion of Merriam-Webster’s editors. They include it among the standard pronunciations of the word. (American Heritage does not; it lists only uh-GEN.)

So the chances are that when you hear someone say “agin,” it’s either a regional version of the preposition “against” (as in “You’re either for us or agin us!”), or it’s just the way that person pronounces the adverb “again” (as in “They’ve done it agin!”).

What you’re probably NOT hearing is a surviving remnant of the defunct preposition “again.”

As we said our 2009 posting, “again” was once used for both the preposition and the adverb. But the old preposition “again” was replaced several hundred years ago by “against.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says that since the early 16th century, “again” has been used only as an adverb and “against” as a preposition in standard English.

Thus the prepositional use of “again” is now labeled obsolete or dialectal in the OED, and “again” survives in standard English only as an adverb.

(“In Scots and north English where against was not adopted,” the OED says, “again still retains all its early constructions.”)

The OED has two entries for “agin,” and both are labeled “dialectal” variants.

In one entry, the meaning is “again” (the adverb), a usage dating from 1815. In the other, the meaning is “against” (the preposition), a usage dating from 1768 and termed “widespread.”

Here are a couple of 19th-century examples, first the adverb and then the preposition:

“Blame my skin if I hain’t gone en forgit dat name agin!” (from Mark Twain’s The American Claimant, 1892).

“I’m unpleasant to look at, and my name’s agin me” (from W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics to H.M.S. Pinafore, 1878).

Check out our books about the English language