Yes, I'm.
May 15, 2008 6:20 AM   Subscribe

Vagaries of the English Language, part n: I need to tell my boss why the contraction "I'm" cannot stand alone as a sentence. For example, "Yes, I am" is okay. "Yes, I'm" is not. I haven't been able to find any good logic for this case or that works for the different contractions in general ("don't" can also stand alone, "I'd" and "I've" cannot). Given this is about languages, and particularly English, "just because" is, alas, potentially the best answer.
posted by whatzit to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It's the way English works. Language is not logical. Is English not your boss's native language?
posted by languagehat at 6:31 AM on May 15, 2008

Thinking back to my vaguely-remembered grad school days, I believe that one theory was that the underlying semantic structure of the contraction was verb-adjective, not subject-verb, even though it's written that way. We were working primarily in a Chomskian framework.

But it's been a long time since I thought about this stuff. I can dig a little. I know this is something we discussed at length, and that the other examples you raise were considered valuable data points.
posted by MsElaineous at 6:34 AM on May 15, 2008

Response by poster: It's the way English works

I'm well aware that's likely the answer. That's what I've told him so far, but I know there's a lot of things I don't know that do have reasons that I don't know (yet). And no, his first language is Japanese.
posted by whatzit at 6:36 AM on May 15, 2008

I'd say it might be because it's such a short sound that it might not be understood without the other words to give that little bit of redundancy. We don't realize how chancy listening to the spoken word is, but especially with some dialects of English, it's crucial to have multiple clues to meaning. We don't really pay attention to these clues, but we use them.

We're also used to sentences having certain rhythms (one of those subtle clues to meaning) and we're not really used to one-syllable sentences that mean more than a simple exclamation.

Which leads to wondering whether "I'm!!!" could be an enthusiastic and grammatically correct to "Who's going to get pizza with me, kids?" - but I guess, in the final analysis, that's just not an expression that most people have learned -- we have a finite amount of time and exposure to learn, after all -- so, if you use this expression, it's novelty will distract from the intended message.
posted by amtho at 6:39 AM on May 15, 2008

Here's the first page of an article that appears to discuss this phenomenon. It might give you someplace to start if you want to do a little research.
posted by MsElaineous at 6:42 AM on May 15, 2008

I would say that when "I am." is used on its own, it is to emphasize either the subject or the state of being, neither of which can be done in a contraction effectively.

You're pregnant?!
I am.

Who is going to the store?
I am.
posted by plinth at 6:44 AM on May 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

It's the way English works

It's the way language works. Try saying "Yes, I'm" to a native English speaker and not fall into the following dialogue.



"You're what"



Swallowing the verb "am" in the contraction leaves the impression that another word should follow. It's an unconventional use and as such if you want to be understood, you should avoid using it.
posted by three blind mice at 6:44 AM on May 15, 2008

IANALIFICBRWOS* but I agree that this is just one of those things.

Well, think "don't" standing alone as a sentence is an exception. It doesn't stand alone particularly well, it just stands alone better than "I'm". "Don't" only works because of the utility of getting across the concept of not doing something without any extraneous stuff. "I'm" is never enough of a concept on its own to have forced a common exception.

*I am not a linguist, in fact I can barely read, write or spell.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:45 AM on May 15, 2008

Intuitively I think it is because saying "I'm" does not allow you to emphasise the verb in the sentence, as you would if you said "Yes, I am" out loud.

It's a bit clearer with "I've" which is obviously not an acceptable abbreviation for all uses of "I have". For example you can't say (at least in most english dialects) "I've herpes", you have to say either "I have herpes" or "I've got herpes". There's probably a posh linguistic term for this, but it seems like if you have another verb to put the emphasis on, you are allowed to contract and de-emphasise the "I have" down to "I've".

"Don't" is an imperative all on its own, so I think it carries its own emphasis.
posted by roofus at 6:47 AM on May 15, 2008

Here's my made up answer as to why "I'm" sounds wrong alone. It's because when we use emphasis or stress on an individual word in order to make sense of our utterances. Example, the difference between" _I_ am" and "I _am_." The question was "who" and we want the "I" stressed in this case. The contractions that stand alone are the negatives, but adding "not" to a modal verb still leaves you with just a verb, just one major part of speech or major part of a sentence such as subject, verb or object. Adding not to that is just like signing a number plus or minus: it's still one number.

If I were still teaching ESL, I'd try to make that fly.
posted by Listener at 6:51 AM on May 15, 2008

When the word being contracted contains a verb, it sounds fine at the end of a sentence. When it's a pronoun or is the subject, object, clause, predicate nominative, or any other of those many confusing terms I barely recall from English class, it sounds awkward. Look. The words on the right are the verbs.
posted by iconomy at 6:55 AM on May 15, 2008

All these explanations also have to explain:

Q: Was that Matt that just went by?
A: T'was!
posted by vacapinta at 6:55 AM on May 15, 2008

I'll take a stab at this - the "I am" is basically a repetition for emphasis, since "Yes" answers the question completely. And if you say "I'm", you're half-assing the emphasis, which is akin to wearing a belt and suspenders, but just having the suspenders looped loosely over your shoulders. In other words, don't bother.

Another way to look at it is, the accent is on "am", not "I". You're not supposed to contract the stressed word, just as, conversely, you pronounce vowels in unaccented syllables as a schwa.
posted by notsnot at 6:56 AM on May 15, 2008

dirtdirt: Well, think "don't" standing alone as a sentence is an exception.

Don't = do not. It's not a noun-verb contraction, which I think makes the difference. See also, any other "not" contraction (won't, didn't, can't). It illuminates this distinction:

"He's" = not acceptable
"He isn't" = acceptable
posted by mkultra at 6:57 AM on May 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Some good answers so far. Roofus I think has it, and mkultra. I'm doesn't put much emphasis on the verb. So you can't just say "I'm (implied predicate)". You have to say "I am (implied predicate)". If you say "I'm", there's an expectation for there to be more coming, because what you are is the important part of the sentence. In an example like:

-Hurry up
-I am (hurrying)

The fact that you are hurrying is more important, so we tend not to contract that. Or:

-Who is in charge here?
-I am.

"I" is the key part there, so we don't usually contract that with "am". That's my hypothesis anyway. I think it ought to cover a majority of cases.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 7:03 AM on May 15, 2008

that's just not an expression that most people have learned -- we have a finite amount of time and exposure to learn, after all -- so, if you use this expression, it's novelty will distract from the intended message.

Swallowing the verb "am" in the contraction leaves the impression that another word should follow. It's an unconventional use and as such if you want to be understood, you should avoid using it.

These approaches miss the point. It is not a "novel" or "unconventional" usage; it is not English. It is comparable to "he am" or "I will was." If I knew more Japanese, I could come up with a comparably wrong Japanese expression whose wrongness a foreigner would find hard to grasp; perhaps you can think of one?
posted by languagehat at 7:14 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I remember this vaguely from syntax class several years ago, so bear with me. The example we studied was "gonna", as in:

She is gonna try.
*She is gonna France.

The reason the first example works with the "gonna" contraction is that the underlying structure is preserved. That is to say, that it is believed (in Universal Grammer, Chomsky theory) that sentences have a basic underlying structure, and then we do things to them (by moving elements around) that changes the emphasis of certain parts to aid our purposes (ex. WH-movement to turn statements into questions)†.

What is also going on here that is key to the understanding of why this works in some cases and not others is that there is part of the sentence that is being ellipsed (ex. missing/left out, but being represented by some other element). So in the two examples I gave, the complete sentences could be something like:

She is gonna try [to make it to France].
*She is gonna [make it to] France.

Without getting too deep into this example, you can start to see that the first one the ellipsed clause "to make it to France" can be left out of the sentence, whereas it sounds wrong to leave it out in the second. This, I suspect, is similar to what is going on with your sentence:

Are you happy?
I am.

With ellipsed clauses put in:
[Yes] I am [happy]
*I'm [happy to see you]

Note that the ungrammatical sentences would NOT be considered ungrammatical with their ellipsed clauses put back in. The contractions cannot stand in for the ellipsed clause, and so they are ungrammatical sentences in these examples.

I'm hoping I've helped (and I hope I'm getting this completely right)!

*Ungrammatical sentence
†These rules are specific to our language and culture. YRMV. Plus, lots of subjectivity in what's acceptable.

posted by iamkimiam at 7:29 AM on May 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

FYI, I didn't address the "don't" example because it's a little bit more complicated with the verb "do", as well as some negation.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:30 AM on May 15, 2008

Response by poster: comparably wrong Japanese expression whose wrongness a foreigner would find hard to grasp; perhaps you can think of one?

Or a few thousand, and I'm still quite crap at Japanese.

I tried to really carefully couch the question, since I already knew the "just because" answer and some curmudgeonliness about another language question expecting logic were both likely ;-)

Thanks, y'all.
posted by whatzit at 7:35 AM on May 15, 2008

"I'm" is a clitic structure, and in English--except for exceptional situations--it doesn't carry enough grammatical/semantic "weight" to stand alone.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:46 AM on May 15, 2008

Contractions are a way to ellide syllables. Basically, you're getting to the "good stuff" part of the sentence rather than concentrating on the drapery everyone can predict, the details of the verb tense (like "I'm going"). When it's just the verb "am," that the focus, so to contract it hides the verb, when you want to highlight the fact that this is not just the part of a verb tense.
posted by lubujackson at 7:49 AM on May 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Perhaps take another approach. Contractions are more informal. Informal speech often requires more context to be understandable. "I'm" isn't sufficient as a stand-alone phrase, and thus he will not be understood by native speakers.

Otherwise, the clearest rule-based explanation is simply that contractions, with a few exceptions ("Don't" being the most common), expect a predicate.
posted by desuetude at 8:20 AM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

In all of your examples where contractions aren't allowed to stand alone, the verb involved is either an auxiliary (helper) verb or a linking verb, even if the main verb in the uncontracted form of the sentence remains unstated. If the verb to be contracted is the main verb (as in "do not"/"don't") or a modal verb ("should not"/"shouldn't", "would not"/ "won't"), contraction is usually allowable.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 8:43 AM on May 15, 2008

Some people (particularly English learners) seem to expect that every aspect of the language has a rational or historical explanation.

This is akin to the common belief of AskMe querents that there must be a word for every salient concept. Or the false belief that evolution requires that every trait confer a survival advantage.

Some things just are because they are -- and because nothing else made them not be.

This fallacy causes people to invent and fervently espouse English usage rules that don't actually exist. A lot of the explanations above give me the impression that people are pretty much improvising.

Even if you find a "reason," it's unlikely to convince your boss. Rather than chasing after imaginary explanations, you might instead cheerfully agree that English is frequently irrational, and ask him for examples of Japanese expressions that don't make sense either.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:53 AM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

If your boss feels more comfortable with it being expressed as a rule, tell him the rule is that only auxiliary verbs are contracted in that fashion (by omitting some of the verb's beginning and joining it and the subject with an apostrophe.) And if someone comes up with an exception to that, explain "Well, that's an exception."

Like everyone's saying, there aren't concrete rules to English -- that usage of "I'm" is wrong because English speakers don't use it that way, i.e., just because.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 9:06 AM on May 15, 2008

mkultra: "Don't = do not. It's not a noun-verb contraction, which I think makes the difference. See also, any other "not" contraction (won't, didn't, can't). It illuminates this distinction:

"He's" = not acceptable
"He isn't" = acceptable

What about this example?

Q:Are you going?
A: I'm not.

In this case, it's a noun-verb contraction that works.
posted by JMOZ at 9:07 AM on May 15, 2008

Interesting discussion of this in alt.usage.english (and no this is not a proper sentence, but neither is "I'm").
posted by caddis at 9:18 AM on May 15, 2008

JMOZ: What about this example? Q:Are you going? A: I'm not. In this case, it's a noun-verb contraction that works.

Of course, but the contraction doesn't end the sentence, which is the original point of contention here. To use your example, "A: I'm" does not work.
posted by mkultra at 11:32 AM on May 15, 2008

Or, to put it another way, "But there's a hole in the bucket, Dear JMOZ, Dear JMOZ!"
posted by mkultra at 11:33 AM on May 15, 2008

Appreciating languagehat's point - there is no reason, this is just how English is - it is often helpful to have a rule or guideline when learning another language. Someone upthread hit on the fact that the stress on the verb is important (which is why vacapinta's "t'was'" fits the pattern).

I am in the throes of learning another language right now, and often my teacher, while pointing out some rule of grammar, will say "the reason we say x is ..." and it's really clear that the following explanation is NOT a reason at all. It's still helpful to retaining the rule though.

So no you can't tell your boss why it's not ok, but you can tell your boss which usages are ok and which aren't and mention the stress thing to help him remember.

I feel there is some ambiguity here in the notion of "reason" that is fuelling an argument that need not happen.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:59 PM on May 15, 2008

Is anyone else tempted to actually attempt this in casual speech? I know I'm.

Honestly, does any language "rule" not devolve back to, basically, circular, tautological , axiomatic type pronouncements (usually with perplexing exceptions)? And English seems worse than most of them as far as irregularity goes. Grammatically correct is something you get scored for on a paper. Practical language is mostly based on common usage. Which "I'm" ain't.
posted by nanojath at 1:43 PM on May 15, 2008

I think Plinth had it right - essentially that the "I'm" contraction and its kin ("you're," "he's," etc,) only work well when there is another word (whether it's a verb or noun or adjective or adverb) that takes the stress of what's being said:

I'm running = it's "running" that you're doing
I'm Frank = Frank is who you are
I'm happy = happy is what best describes your state or condition
I'm not = (which could refer to the negative of any of the conditions above)

Of course, one could say "I'm happy" to stress the fact that the speaker is the specific one who's happy, but I still reckon that extra word is what allows it to make sense.

"Don't!" works for the same "third word" reason, but in this case it's a little different. Sure, it's "do" + "not," but implied in any command is the second person "you." It's just a quirky way in which contractions are formed in English that here it's the adverb "not" which is contracted, because the pronoun is only implied. (Similarly, one can say "you aren't" or "you're not" OR "I'm not" or "I ain't.) English is funny that way.

It's easier to say that this is how English works, plain and simple (and it's true!) - but I see a logic or "rule" in it which has worked for me consistently as I've learned English. My brain's a little off today, but if anyone can come up with an exception to this "third word rule," I'd like to know.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:44 PM on May 15, 2008

I think that saying that there is just no rhyme or reason is just a cop out. I would say that we haven't figured out all the intricacies of why these things work the way they do.

Another interesting quirk of English contractions is this (I don't think anyone's mentioned it):

(* = bad)

* I've.

I've not. (OK in England I think?)

I haven't.

I would've.

I think you are really safe in generalizing that contractions to verbs can stand on their own at the end of a clause ("haven't", "would've"), but contractions to nouns ("I'm", "you'd") cannot. As to why, again I think there's a structure to it, but linguists are still working that out.
posted by kosmonaut at 3:21 PM on May 15, 2008

having only skimmed the responses above, apologies if this has been said BUT...

"I'm" is a contraction used in phrases that describe the state of the speaker; I'm happy, I'm dead, I'm a bowl of Cheerios.

I'm is not used to describe the existence of the speaker, with or without other words in the sentence. You wouldn't say, "I think therefore I'm" or "I'm and she is, too." So focusing on the fact that the contraction stands alone seems to be the wrong angle. The contraction isn't used in conversational English to state existence at all.

Why it isn't used in this manner isn't something I can answer except by saying, "Usage." Usage is what makes language familiar and recognizable. Making up new slang, or using old words (or contractions) in novel ways isn't "wrong," it just isn't "in the language" as they say. Tell your boss that if he/she wants to break new ground, then rock on. If he/she wants to communicate clearly in a business-like fashion, then best to stick to accepted usage.
posted by xz at 7:58 PM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

xz makes a great point here. It's not just the syntactic function of the word that determines its contractibility, but the semantic function as well.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:36 PM on May 15, 2008

It's actually 'twas.
posted by Mister_A at 8:32 AM on May 30, 2008

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