The Grammarphobia Blog

Amn’t I a smart smartypants

Q: When our son was about three, he jokingly said, “Amn’t I a smart smartypants.” (Statement, not question.) Obviously, he figured out how to make a negative of “I am a smart smartypants.” Amn’t I right?

A: Your son’s use of “amn’t” was very precocious. He discovered for himself a word that makes perfect grammatical sense.

But you’ll be surprised to learn that “amn’t” already exists, though most English speakers don’t use it today.

It’s a contraction of “am not,” and it’s formed along the lines of many similar contractions: “isn’t” (for “is not”), “wasn’t” (“was not”), “weren’t” (“were not”), “didn’t” (“did not”), “can’t” (“cannot”), and so on.

Like many other English contractions, it was first recorded in the 1600s.  This is the first known example in writing, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “If I amn’t mistaken, the pinch is here” (the Athenian Gazette, May 11, 1691).

Unlike those other contractions, “amn’t” is not common today. It’s heard mostly in Scottish and Irish English, according to Merriam-Webster online. In the United States it’s “nonstandard,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The reason “amn’t” is not widely used is that it’s ungainly and awkward to pronounce. The contraction forces together the consonants “m” and “n,” an unnatural combination.

What most English speakers have done is drop the troublesome “m” from “am,” resulting in contractions for “am” + “not” that are easier to pronounce.

The earliest of these was “an’t,” first recorded in the 1660s (several decades before “amn’t), and sometimes written as “a’n’t.” More than a century later, in the late 1700s, came the two we’re familiar with today: first “ain’t,” then “aren’t” (used only in questions).

These are the earliest OED citations for each:

“Now, ain’t I an old chaunter?” (1785, from Peeping Tom of Coventry, a comic opera by John O’Keeffe) … “Aren’t I made already?” (1798, from Rose-Mount Castle, a novel by Mary Julia Young).

It’s likely, etymologists have suggested, that as contractions for “am” + “not,” the words written “ain’t” and “aren’t” originally represented how “an’t” sounded to different English speakers.

If the vowel in “an’t” sounded like a long “a” (as in “hay”), then “ain’t” would have been a reasonable spelling. And if the vowel in “an’t” sounded like “ah,” then “aren’t” (with the “r” silent in British speech) would have represented that pronunciation.

However they developed, “ain’t” today is widely regarded as nonstandard English, while “aren’t” is the recognized “am” + “not” contraction used in questions or question-like statements (as in “Aren’t I the clever one!”).

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