English language Etymology Grammar Usage

“I’m right, aren’t I?”

Q: As a teacher of English as a second language, I’ve wondered about the use of the “tag” question “aren’t I?” at the end of a sentence, e.g., “I’m right, aren’t I?” One ought to say, “I’m right, am I not?” but doing so sounds too formal for ordinary conversation. The problem, of course, is that “aren’t I?” uses the plural verb “are” with the singular subject “I.” It feels like the grammatical equivalent of a pebble in one’s shoe. So, what’s a grammarian to do?

A: Let’s get rid of that pebble. “Aren’t I?” is correct, standard English.

“Am,” of course, is the proper first-person singular form of the verb “to be.” But in the negative interrogative, where the subject and the auxiliary verb are inverted, “aren’t I?” replaced “amn’t I?” over the years because of the awkwardness of the regular negative form “amn’t.”

The “m” in “amn’t” was dropped early on for reasons of euphony. Earlier spellings (like “a’n’t I?” and “an’t I?”) were eventually replaced by “aren’t I?” – but only in the interrogative. One would never say “I aren’t going.”

These days “amn’t” is heard mostly in certain dialects in Ireland and Scotland, according to the linguist David Crystal. In informal English, of course, the infamous “ain’t” is heard both in statements and in questions.

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