Notes on 'Ain't'

"'Ain't' is a word that ain't had it easy"

The word "ain't" is associated with toughness. On April 26, 1934 a group of Boy Scout leaders from Indiana hoped this sign would protect them from a spray of machine gun bullets. Getty/APA / Staff

As far as I know, only one rule of English usage has ever made its way into a children's jump-rope rhyme:

Don't say ain't or your mother will faint,
Your father will fall in a bucket of paint,
Your sister will cry, your brother will die,
Your cat and dog will call the FBI.

Though frequently heard in casual speech, ain't has been described as "the most stigmatized word in English." Dictionaries usually label it dialectal or nonstandard, while some purists even deny its right to exist, insisting that ain't "isn't a word."

What is it about this simple negative contraction that agitates language mavens and spreads fear on the playground? As these notes demonstrate, the answer is surprisingly complex.

  • Grammar and Usage
    [The] two meanings of grammar--how the language functions and how it ought to function--are easily confused. To clarify the distinction, consider the expression ain't. Unless used intentionally to add colloquial flavor, ain't is unacceptable because its use is considered nonstandard. Yet taken strictly as a part of speech, the term functions perfectly well as a verb. Whether it appears in a declarative sentence ("I ain't going") or an interrogative sentence ("Ain't I going?"), it conforms to the normal pattern for all verbs in the English language. Although readers may not approve of its use, they cannot argue that it is ungrammatical in such sentences.
    (Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, Handbook of Technical Writing, 10th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)
  • A Brief History of Ain't
    Ain't has had an unusual history. It's a shortened form of several words--am not, are not, is not, has not and have not. It appears in written English in the 18th century in various plays and novels, first as an't and then as ain't. During the 19th century, it was widely used in representations of regional dialect, especially Cockney speech in the UK, and became a distinctive feature of colloquial American English. But when we look at who is using the form in 19th-century novels, such as those by Dickens and Trollope, we find that the characters are often professional and upper-class. That's unusual: to find a form simultaneously used at both ends of the social spectrum. Even as recently as 1907, in a commentary on society called The Social Fetich, Lady Agnes Grove was defending ain't I as respectable upper-class colloquial speech--and condemning aren't I!
    She was in a rapidly diminishing minority. Prescriptive grammarians had taken against ain't, and it would soon become universally condemned as a leading marker of uneducated usage.
    (David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)
  • Collocational Ain't
    In Present-Day English, ain't is stigmatized even though linguistically it is formed by the same rule speakers use to form aren't and other nonstigmatized contracted auxiliary verbs. . . . [T]here is nothing linguistically wrong with it; in fact, ain't is used by many speakers in certain fixed expressions and to convey a certain rhetorical effect: It ain't over yet! You ain't seen nothing yet! If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
    (Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Wadsworth, 2010
  • Prissy, Ridiculous, and Unpopular Alternatives to Ain't I?
    As linguistic scholars have frequently pointed out, it is unfortunate that ain't I? is unpopular in educated speech, for the phrase fills a long-felt need. Am I not? is too prissy for down-to-earth people; amn't I? is ridiculous; and aren't I?, though popular in England, has never really caught on in America. With a sentence like the one under discussion ["I'm your best friend, ain't I?"] you are practically in a linguistic trap--there is no way out unless you are willing to choose between appearing illiterate, sounding prissy, or feeling ridiculous.
    (Norman Lewis, Word Power Made Easy. Simon & Schuster, 1979)
  • Class Acts
    A correlation exists between the use of ain't and social class, i.e. it is more frequent in lower-class speech. In upper-class speech it is indicative of a personal relationship and an informal situation . . . and is employed when the other person knows "that the speaker is using ain't for stylistic effect, rather than from ignorance or lack of education" (Feagin 1979: 217). Since the form is such a strong school-induced shibboleth, informants tend to suppress it in (more formal) interview situations.
    (Traute Ewers, The Origin of American Black English: Be-Forms in the Hoodoo Texts. Walter de Gruyter, 1995)
  • Gender Acts
    There is still in the American popular mind a notion that ain't, for all its faults, is masculine, while aren't is not simply feminine, but effeminate. In Thomas Berger's novel The Feud (1983), Tony, a high school student, finds that good grammar must take a back seat to his public sexual identity. Tony defends his use of the masculine ain't against his girlfriend Eva's objection that it is a sign of ignorance: "I don't like to talk like a girl. Somebody might think I was a pansy."
    (Dennis E. Baron, Grammar and Gender. Yale University Press, 1986)

    And that ain't all. But for now we'll have to agree with the editors of The American Heritage Book of English Usage: "Ain't is a word that ain't had it easy."