Word Court

Illustration by Rollin McGrail

Iaren't I? I am not a native speaker of English, but that expression simply does not sound right to me. I was relatively confident that it was wrong until recently, when I heard a distinguished British intellectual use it. I thought the proper way of asking this question was am I not? Am I right or aren't I?

Raúl Hernandez

As a negative, interrogative form of I are, whose subject-verb agreement surely no usage authority or manual anywhere endorses, aren't I? is of course an illogical construction. And yet the authorities both here and in Britain cheerfully accept it in everyday -- though on the whole not in formal -- usage. What's recommended for formal contexts is indeed your am I not?

Only relatively recently has aren't I? been welcome in the United States. In the 1936 fourth edition of his classic The American Language, H. L. Mencken observed, "Aren't has never got a foothold in the American first person; when it is used at all, which is very rarely, it is always as a conscious Briticism." Strange to say, the construction that aren't I? has displaced -- ain't I? -- is now regarded as completely illiterate even though it is somewhat more logical, because it can be thought of as a contraction of am I not?

Mencken went on to make an argument of a kind that's often heard today with respect to other expressions and words. He wrote, "Facing the alternative of employing the unwieldy 'Am I not in this?' the American turns boldly to 'Ain't I in this?' Here, as always, the popular speech is pulling the exacter speech along, and no one familiar with its successes in the past can have much doubt that it will succeed again, soon or late."

Those of us who sometimes feel that it's hopeless to try to maintain a distinction between standard and colloquial English may be heartened to note that the great Mencken seems to have been wrong in this case. Although he was no doubt right about the overall trend, it's worth remembering that the "popular" version does not always prevail -- not even when it is more logical than the imported idiom that takes its place.

Illustration by Rollin McGrail Tthinly in constructions like thinly sliced bothers me. I cannot conceive of a thinly this way. Shouldn't it be thin sliced or, better, sliced thin? It seems to me that the misuse describes the actions of the slicer rather than the results.

W. S. Penn Jr.

You're quite right that thin-sliced is considered better form than thinly sliced. But thin here is the very same part of speech as thinly, each of them being an adverb. As the American Heritage Dictionary has been declaring in every edition from its first, published in 1969, to its brand-new fourth, one of the meanings of the adverb thin is "so as to be thin." Go figure. But in fact many adverbs have two forms (thinly and thin, and thick,and quick), the terser of which is standard in combinations: thick-cut,

Ico-chairwoman when the other person doing the chairing is a man -- presumably referred to as co-chairman? My friend and I have been arguing about this. He maintains that -woman is an integral part of the title, and that therefore unless the person's counterpart can be identified in the same way, it is objectionable to incorporate into the title the component co-. But I contend that gender is in this case incidental, and is used only to expand on the attributes of the individual filling the role. Which is it?

George Pollack

If we as a society are really heading toward gender equity, and yet sometimes find women in positions of authority identified as chairmen, maybe it would be good for the male sex if its members were every now and again identified as chairwomen, or co-chairwomen.

Just kidding. Isn't the situation you're describing exactly what the word co-chair is for?

There is often, by the way, reason to look askance at the prefix co-, as your friend is doing, for it is regularly used where it is useless. (What's wrong, for instance, with "He and she will be the chairs of the committee this year"?) But here co- isn't any part of the problem. At any rate, you can't stay out of trouble by referring to the two people together as chairwomen -- or chairmen.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the author of

Illustrations by Rollin McGrail.

The Atlantic Monthly; November 2000; Word Court - 00.11; Volume 286, No. 5; page 124.