” ‘Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary.”
Ever hear that one? The colloquial phrase “ain’t” is typically a contracted variation of “am/is/are/was/were not”.
We commonly hear that “ain’t” is improper, is bad grammar, is a sign of ignorance. Is this true? And what does the use of “ain’t” say about us?
Conventionally, many people suppose that it is. After all, in none of the preceding forms of “to be” that ends in the word combination “ain”. Yet somehow we have ain’t. This leaves us with the question, “how did this develop?”
It first goes back 400 years to when amn’t was used as a form of “am not”. Now, our language, like every other language, operates by a complex set of natural rules, rules that people don’t know they’re following, they just are. For example, one rule in English is that you don’t pronounce any words with the back of your throat, like you would with, say, Hebrew. So another rule is that our tongues prefer not to sound out two nasal consonants in a row. Go ahead, try pronouncing “m” and “n” right after one another. Sounds awkward, doesn’t it?
So eventually people dropped the m and just pronounced the n. In writing, it began to be written as “an’t”. This is a natural rule in language called elision, in which sounds are eventually removed from a word to make it easier to say. Other English examples are fifth (“fith”), and Wednesday (“Wensday”). In cases like these, spelling remains the same, but over time spelling of words changes as well.
So a little over 300 years ago “an’t” started being used for “am not” and “are not”. In the mid-1700s, an’t was being pronounced with more of a long a, so people began changing the spelling to “ain’t”. Charles Dickens even used it in Little Dorrit:
“It’s quite your regular right; ain’t it?” Granted, he often had his lower-class, cockney characters use it. But that’s how far it goes back. In fact, during the 19th century, many educated British people used “ain’t” all the time. So it has nothing to do with improper grammar, and everything to do with the changing tastes of the upper class.
The main grammatical explanation people often give for why ain’t is improper—nay, even vulgar—is that it is used for multiple forms of “to be” and you can’t tell which one. That’s foolish, because context always tells you. “I ain’t, we ain’t, you ain’t, they ain’t”—in none of these examples is it unclear who and how many are not being or doing whatever it is they are not being or doing.
Rather, the other reason—and the real reason—people object to it is because it is used mostly by lower class, typically less educated folks. That’s it. The reasoning has been given that since less educated folks use it, it must be bad grammar. But in order demonstrate it is bad grammar you must actually demonstrate that it is bad grammar. This has yet to be done.
Besides, if we don’t use “I ain’t” for the first person singular negative, which contraction should we use? You see, there ain’t one. Except for ain’t. But upper class people reject for no logical reason. You see, when a word is clearly missing that needs to be used, we call it a lexical gap. One example of a lexical gap is that we have no gender-neutral word for “aunt” or “uncle” like we do for “sibling” or “parent”. This absence of a “proper” first person singular negative contraction is another one. No reason for it, because the law of supply and demand linguistically calls for us to have one. And although ain’t makes perfect sense for our tongues to use, it has been branded taboo. There is no grammatical reason, only a social one. Prejudice calls for certain protocols of dress and language to be stigmatized in order to maintain a gap between those with and those without. This is one of those examples. The contraction has been shunned, and may never be able to take it’s very fitting place in “high class” society.
I’m wrong about all this, aren’t I?
Well, here’s where it gets funny. A lot of “high class” people will often be caught uttering the contraction combo “aren’t I?” But this one is proven wrong, because it is a contraction of “are” and “not”. It is grammatically incorrect to say “are I not?” So when some more-educated-than-thou elitist says to you, “I’m better at grammar than you, aren’t I?” you can have a good laugh.
Indeed, the contraction “ain’t” exists descriptively in multiple English vernaculars as a systematic, predictable, rule-governed linguistic phenomenon.
- They systematically fit into the user’s conversation, and are understood by natives. That is the very reason why, when “we” catch people in the act of using one, we understand what they meant to say, meaning we are not confused, just pointing out a grammar feature “we” find as an error.
- Their use is predictable in various contexts, and we already know to expect the phenomena from speakers of various backgrounds, who use them consistently. Were it an error, it would be a slip that people make, not a repeated pattern among certain social groups and in certain conventions.
- It is governed by specific rules that it naturally follows in its use. Whenever the contraction is employed, it is meant to express negation of “to be”.
Today the contraction ain’t exists in Southern American and African-American English, in which it is predictably uttered, systematically involved, and governed by grammatical rules. It also exists in Cockney. But as you can see, none of these vernaculars are standardized, and all three are stigmatized by upper class English speakers.
Use of ain’t markers betray not a lack of knowledge of grammar, but a lack of social prestige, thus why it is often taboo among circles which enjoy the luxury of high socio-economic status and the privileges that come with. And people who assume it is wrong to use ain’t—they ain’t ever going to understand the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Don’t ask an English major; ask a linguist.
So should you use it? Well, I’ll give you a warning. See, it’s not incorrect grammar, but it is socially restricted grammar. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with you, but people won’t always get that, and thought it’s not your fault, some doors may be closed to you, and some eyes may be cast down at you. A guy could work out a brilliant equation to prove that a rocket is ready to fly, and an entire team of colleagues could nod in agreement, but the moment he says, “Ain’t anything wrong with it,” we suddenly don’t trust him.
And this is why your teachers will be pressured to tell you it’s wrong. Their task is to prepare you for the future. They want doors to be open for you. So it’s safer to tell you it’s just bad grammar.
It is, my friends, a Shibboleth. So while you’re ok to use it, know that if you want to broaden the places you can go in the world, use discretion. A job interview might be a poor place to use it. Once you’re in a place where you feel comfortable, and establish credibility, like Dickens, break it out if you want.
I ain’t gonna complain about it. Are you?