I'm not sure about contractions
October 12, 2008 12:38 PM   Subscribe

[EnglishFilter] Why can I answer with I'm rather than I am? It was a random though that was going through my head but why can't we answer questions with a simple "I'm" e.g. Are you going to come with us to the cinema? I am.

I will say I only took up to secondary (high) school english and this is more of an ideal curiosity to me. This sort of thing is way beyond my understanding of the rules that make up my mother tounge. I came up with the idea that you can answer a question with "Can't" but that would probably come under slang
posted by rus to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It sounds weird. You can start answering with "I'm", if you want. Maybe it'll catch on. You'll have to explain it every time you use it that way, though.
posted by stavrogin at 12:47 PM on October 12, 2008

posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:51 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

That particular contraction is only used in more complex sentences.

On the other hand, it's completely acceptable to answer a question with just the word "Can't."

That's the kind of thing that happens in natural languages. Usage isn't always consistent, and there are exceptions to nearly every rule.
posted by Class Goat at 12:54 PM on October 12, 2008

The contraction is so small that it requires context to ensure a listener understands it. "Eyem" is a weird sound on its own and because it's been used with context as part of a longer sentence, no one expects to hear that particular sound on its own, so they spend a good few seconds trying to figure out what you said and then MAYBE realizing you "improperly" used a contraction.

Can't stands alone because it's far less ambiguous because of the inflection; "I'm" is unstressed and bizarre on its own.
posted by disillusioned at 1:00 PM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

If the stress is on "am", you can't contract it. If the stress is on "I", you can.

I am going to the movies. I'm going to the movies.

Are you going to the movies? I am. Can't do "I'm."

Same rules for other contractions.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 1:08 PM on October 12, 2008 [3 favorites]

It's because you have to stress (if only a little bit) the word "am" in the same way that you would stress "not" if you said "I'm not."

Also, "idle curiosity."
posted by Stylus Happenstance at 1:10 PM on October 12, 2008

If the stress is on "am", you can't contract it. If the stress is on "I", you can.

I am going to the movies. I'm going to the movies.

Are you going to the movies? I am. Can't do "I'm."

Same rules for other contractions.

I think this is false.

"I wish you would just come to the movies with us."
"I am!"

I'm still doesn't work there, even with the changed stress.
posted by srrh at 1:23 PM on October 12, 2008

No, that's the same stress. A better example to show the idea might be:

"Which one of you is coming to the movies with us?"

posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:26 PM on October 12, 2008

Obviously there are contractions that work standalone. "Can I eat this?" "Don't!" But I think all the contractions of "not" can be used this way, some more commonly than others of course. "'Tis!" "'Tisn't!"

The contractions of "be" -- "I'm", "You're", "S/He's", "They're", "We're" -- don't ever seem natural by themselves. But I believe this is simply because "to be" is a auxiliary (helper) verb here. The real answer is not the state of being, but the action which is described by the full compound verb, "to be going" or whatever.

If you consider a language that doesn't require "to be" in this construction, it's easy to see that someone would reply with the action verb and not the auxiliary. "I go" -- or in many languages, "I go"+stem[some-indicative-prefix-or-suffix]. It simply wouldn't make sense to answer with the stem alone -- you need the root. In this case, English requires the use of an auxiliary verb to serve the same purpose.
posted by dhartung at 1:37 PM on October 12, 2008

You can only contract "am" when it's used as a transitive verb, not in the intransitive sense.

Perhaps you can only use contractions on their own when they don't end with an intransitive verb. For example, "can't" starts with the verb, so that's fine. "isn't" starts with a verb, so is fine. "I'm" ends with a verb, and if used on its own the verb must be intransitive so is not okay. This is only a guess, but I think this pattern sticks?
posted by wackybrit at 4:53 PM on October 12, 2008

Generally speaking, the issue is probably not simply one of stress, because in other non-contrastive constructions, we still just cannot have these contractions at the end of any phrase. For example:

Here I am! vs Here I'm!

The focused, stressed element is "here" rather than "I" or "am". (I think this distills out the stress, anyway.)

Also, the phrase can be a longer one, so it is not only phrase length that matters:

*I don't know who he thinks he's, but he's wrong.

*I'm what I'm and that's all that I'm

It is also not a matter of transitive-vs-intransitive, as you can see here:

* I wonder who he's?

"He's who?" is something that would be possible (as an echo-question where you didn't hear someone right), but once the word order is changed, placing the contraction at the end of the phrase, the sentence suddenly sounds awkward.

In every case, it is being at the phrase edge (not sentence edge, but the edge of the clause) that causes the issue.

Another interesting side-thing: in American English, we also don't contract "have" unless it is being used as an auxiliary verb.

"I've three dollars" is bad in American English, but good in British English (I believe).
posted by kosmonaut at 9:02 AM on October 18, 2008

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