Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Quaint Ain't



Q. 1 Has there ever been a time when the contraction of "am" and "not" has been used? I don't think I have ever heard it used, and when you say it, it sure sounds funny. But is it grammatically incorrect?

Q. 2 How about the use of the phrase "at all". Where did that come from? Here’s an example: "Does anyone listen to your show at all?”
Jim/Petoskey, MI

A. The only listeners that I’m certain of, Jim, are the ones that call or email questions, so you’ve just added one name to the list.

There have been various contractions for “am not,” but they are still considered colloquial at best, illiterate at worst. I prefer the first school of thought. One such contraction was an’t. It shows up in William Congreve’s play Love for Love [Act 3, Scene 7]: “I can hear you farther off, I an't deaf.”

Then there is the dreaded ain’t, which, among other meanings, can signify “am not.” The Columbia Guide to Standard American English speculates that ain’t might have developed from the form amn’t, which would be much more difficult to say--hence, its mutation into ain’t. But amn’t is still used in some Scottish and Irish dialects.

The problem with ain’t is its flexibility. It is used as a contraction for am not, are not, is not, have not and has not. It would be great if its meaning applied only to the first person singular (I am), but it is found in all three persons and in singular and plural situations. H.L. Mencken’s hopes have been dashed: “Ain't is already tolerably respectable in the first person...” [1919, The American Language, p. 146] Instead, we are now told to use the absolutely illogical wording “aren’t I?” in questions--illogical because are is used for the 2nd person singular in addition to all persons plural in the present indicative active of the verb to be.

As for the phrase at all, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it means in every way, in any way, altogether. Miles Coverdale used it in his 1535 translation of the Bible. “Sayenge: peace, peace, when there is no peace at all.” [Jeremiah vi. 14] It also worked its way into the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible: “If thy father at all misse me.” [1 Samuel xx. 6]


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