Burning questions about teaching English in China #11: Do or don’t, there is no ‘do not’

Pronounce contractions correctly you will.

It’s been a while since I posted a puzzler, because, well, classes started last month. Plus, I am now an administrator, so my days are pretty full.

But enough about that. On to this week’s puzzler: Why do students mispronounce English contractions?

I’ll offer a few examples.

Many students will say “I will” in the above sentence, while native speakers of English will say /ɑɪl/ to rhyme with “isle” and “aisle.”

For “don’t” /doʊnt/ students will often say “do not.” For “she’s” /ʃi:z/ they will say “she is.” And so on.

Why? Why not pronounce them as they are written?

I suspect it’s a result of the tendency of some Chinese teachers of English to overemphasize pronunciation of single words over pronunciation of word clusters, clauses and sentences. That is, native English speakers group our words together while speaking, whereas Chinese speakers are taught from an early age to Say. Each. Word. Clearly. And. Distinctly. Perhaps these leads some teachers to tell their students to replace the written contractions with spoken non-contracted words. (Typically, Chinese learners of English learn to speak from books and their teachers’ own spoken English, and rarely from recordings of native speakers. This situation leads to bad habits in pronunciation.)

Linguistically, English is a stress-timed language, while Mandarin is a syllable-timed language. English contractions result from the stress-timing. Native speakers tend to say nouns and verbs relatively clearly, while auxiliary verbs (modals), prepositions and conjunctions tend to be spoken more softly and quickly. For example, unless a native speaker is emphasizing his intention to definitely do something (I WILL), he would pronounce “I will” with a soft /w/ and the /ɪ/ as /ə/: /’ɑɪ ʷəl/. Spoken rapidly, this might sound more like /ɑɪl/. The /h/ in English is fairly soft, so “I have” spoken quickly sounds more like “I’ve” /ɑɪv/.

Beginning in the 1600s, authors and playwrights reproduced the spoken forms as written contractions. [Citation] Eventually, these contractions became standardized written representations of words as they were spoken, though these spoken contractions were still considered improper and not suitable for educated speakers. Even today, teachers still advise separating the words for formal writing or public speaking occasions, though they are perfectly appropriate for conversational use.

In other words, pronounce the contractions as they are written.

This is how English is supposed to sound. If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for you!

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POSTSCRIPT

Meanwhile, I’ve seen students use these contractions incorrectly:

  • “‘s” (as in “she’s”) can ONLY be used for the present tense (she is), never for the past tense. In other words, “she’s” cannot replace “she was.”
  • “There are” is NEVER spelled “there’re,” though in rapid, informal speech it may sound like /’ðɝr ər/.

Here is a list of common English contractions. These are all pronounced as they are written. You don’t need to say them in their uncontracted forms.

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POST-POSTSCRIPT

This question came up in class once. Why do we use “aren’t I?” as a tag question, rather than the more grammatical “am I not?”? After all, we don’t say “I aren’t Chinese,” because “are” is the second-person form of “to be” and not the first-person form — “am.”

At the time, I made an educated guess and suggested that “amn’t” never became a commonly used contraction for “am not” as “aren’t” was for “are not”, perhaps because the /m/ and /n/ sounds were so close together. I assumed that speakers adopted “aren’t I” as a tag question because it’s easier to pronounce, though incorrect grammatically. Saying “am I not” or “am not I” also sounds overly formal and stiff, as if the speaker were the King or Queen of England.

It turns out out I was mostly right, judging from this reference.

“Aren’t I?” is commonly used and very acceptable in informal language. “Am I not?” is grammatical, but extremely formal, so in most contexts, “aren’t I?” is the preferred choice. The only exception is when you are writing a formal letter or an academic paper, and then you can either use “am I not?,” or even better, restructure the sentence to avoid using either of these forms.

x–snip–x

However, for first person pronoun, I, there is no contraction with the verb be + not. (“Amn’t” is not a word in English.) Therefore, in casual speech and writing, English speakers use aren’t, instead, and except in formal situations, this is considered entirely grammatical.

The lexicographers at Merriam-Webster suggest “aren’t I” developed as a way to avoid the dreaded contraction “ain’t,” which has been often associated with the lower classes or uneducated people or children. [You’ll see it a lot if you read Mark Twain in the original English.] Regardless of the reasons for its use, remember that grammar is largely descriptive and not proscriptive, and in conversational English, making the occasion grammar error is quite normal, even for native speakers, y’know?


Also published on Medium.

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