A Word, Please: How to be an idiom savant

Here's my favorite sentence: "Aren't I?" In recent months, I've trotted it out half a dozen times to end an argument about grammar. It works. Better than any other sentence I know, "Aren't I?" illustrates an important fact about grammar: It's not all about grammar.

Let me explain.

When you're trying to determine whether something is correct in English, you can often turn to a dictionary. For example, if you want to know whether you should say "I have brought" or "I have brung," it's right there in your Webster's (or Merriam-Webster's or American Heritage). Just look up the word "bring," notice that right after the main entry word is "brought," and if you understand how dictionaries work you know that "brought" is the word you want.

So the dictionary is one of the major determinants of correctness in English.

Another is syntax, which usually just means grammar. The sentence "Me cake much wants vanilla" is ungrammatical. "Me" isn't a subject, "wants" isn't a first-person conjugation, "cake" should come after the verb, and so on.

So syntax — that is, grammar — is another thing that determines correctness.

There's one other, very important determinant of correctness, but a lot of people don't like it: idiom.

Idiom means common usage. More precisely, says Webster's New World, it's "a phrase, construction, or expression that is recognized as a unit in the usage of a given language and either differs from the usual syntactic patterns or has a meaning that differs from the literal meaning of its parts taken together."

Example: By the rules of syntax, you can't ask, "Who did you meet?" You must ask, "Whom did you meet?" That's because the object of the verb "meet" is supposed to be in object form, like "whom," and not subject form, like "who." But using "who" in a sentence like this is idiomatic. That means it's OK.

But for some people, idiom is too slippery a slope. It raises the question: "If common usage is all that matters, couldn't you argue that any popular grammatical atrocity is correct?"

The question of how and when we can slap the "idiomatic" label on an ungrammatical sentence is tricky. For example, academics debate whether "Where are you at?" is an idiomatic alternative to "Where are you?" I'm not authorized to say where we should draw the line on these matters. The point is that there is a line. And nothing shines a light on it better than "Aren't I?"

When people argue that common usage doesn't justify ungrammatical structure, I ask them whether they use "Amn't I?" instead of "Aren't I?" None do, even though "Aren't I?" is ungrammatical.

To form this type of question, you swap the places of a subject and verb and add "n't," a contraction of "not." He is. Isn't he? They are. Aren't They? You are. Aren't you? We are. Aren't we? See how these move the verb to the head of the sentence? Now try it with "I am" and you end up with "Amn't I?" Yet Americans use "Aren't I?" — the interrogative form of the indisputably ungrammatical sentence "I are."

Yet no one I've ever talked to has a problem with "Aren't I?" Not the people who argue against "Where are you at?" Not the people who argue we should say "He is taller than I" instead of "He is taller than me." And not the people who insist you can never use "who" where "whom" would do.

So "Aren't I?" proves that, although idiom may be a murky, slippery and highly debatable, sometimes it reigns supreme.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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