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Why Is Ain’t Improper?

February 10, 2013

 

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Grammar Police Rule #1:  Don’t say the word “ain’t” three times a day, or else! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid, nobody in my house said the word ain’t.  In a way, the word ain’t was worse than profanity.    I heard my parents say other inappropriate words like the F-word, and the Shhhhhhh-word and the word that rhymes with Mod-Gammit, but I never heard my parents say ain’t.

I think I said ain’t a couple times and was corrected, but I didn’t get my mouth washed out with soap for saying ain’t.  I got my mouth washed out for saying other words, so in that regard, ain’t wasn’t worse than profanity.  I just knew not to say it.

In elementary school, I had a friend who used to say, “Ain’t ain’t a word, so you ain’t s’posed to say it three times a day cuz it ain’t proper.”

The humor in that statement was that the word ain’t was used four times in one sentence when you weren’t supposed to say it three times in one day.  I had some rebellious friends.  That same rebellious friend became a police officer (but NOT part of the grammar police), but I don’t know how long he was a cop.  When I last spoke to him (over twenty years ago), he said, “I can’t believe I’m a f###ing pig.”

But I don’t remember him saying the word ain’t during that entire conversation.

WHY IS AIN’T IMPROPER?

Most (if not all) forms of the verb be have contractions.  Is not has isn’tWas not has wasn’tWere not has weren’t.

And a few hundred years ago, am not had amn’t.

Somewhere along the way, amn’t became ain’t.  And somewhere along the way, ain’t became improper.

PURE SPECULATION ALERT!!!

Amn’t does not (or doesn’t) roll off the tongue.  It sounds like a mild form of profanity.  Say amn’t and dammit in the same sentence, and people could get confused.  Dropping the m makes it much easier to say.  Unfortunately, that makes the contraction an’t which can be confused with ant or even aunt.  The pronunciation then may have changed to ain’t because people would rather sound low class than be confused.

If a bunch of linguists and etymologists are shaking their heads in disgust right now, then I’ve done my job well.

HOW TO USE AIN’T CORRECTLY

Even if ain’t were proper (and it isn’t), people who say ain’t usually use it incorrectly.  Ain’t was originally the contraction for am not.  In order to say am not properly, you need the subject I.

For example, you might say, “I am not ever going to read another John Grisham book again.”  Therefore, saying “I ain’t ever going to read another John Grisham book again” might have been grammatically correct a long time ago.  And from my point of view, the statement is also factually correct.

However, it is grammatically incorrect to say, “We am not ever going to read another James Patterson novel.”  The sentiment might be right, but the grammar is not.  Therefore, saying “We ain’t ever going read another James Patterson novel” would never have been grammatically correct.

It is incorrect to say, “He am not  (ain’t) going to ever read another Tom Clancy novel again.”

It is also incorrect to say, “She am not (ain’t) going to read another Janet Evanovich novel ever again.”

Technically, the only time ain’t should be used is when I is the subject.  That might be what originally infuriated the English language purists.  It wasn’t the word ain’t itself;  it was probably the overuse.

So if you want to frustrate a grammarian (it’s fun to do on a slow day), use the word ain’t properly.

IS AIN’T A DYING WORD?

I don’t hear the word ain’t used frequently anymore.  As a kid, I heard it all the time, and it was corrected a lot.  Today, I live in a section of the United States that is reputed to use ain’t, but I don’t hear it.  I even hang out with the type of person who is supposed to say ain’t, but I still haven’t heard it used much.  Maybe ain’t  is on its way to becoming a dying word.

No matter how much its use may decline, ain’t will never be a completely dead word.  It’s too easy to say to ever go away.  Plus, it will always be fun to watch the grammarians get mad.

*****

I just read this whole thing out loud.  If I’m not supposed to say ain’t three times a day, then I’m in huge trouble with the grammar police.  But my rebellious police officer friend would be proud of me.

*****

If you’re the type of person who is interested in the word “ain’t” and other grammatical issues, you might also like…

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From → Etymology

25 Comments
  1. It’s sort of a shunted analogue to ‘shall’ – a word which was meant only to be used in the first person (I shall / she will). While they both shifted over to use with second and third, ‘shall’ became O.K. to use whenever and ‘ain’t’ became O.K. to use never. (>^-‘)>

    • I never knew that about “shall,” or if I’ve been taught that, I don’t remember it (probably my fault rather than the teacher’s).

      • Hehe. Just one of those obscure distinctions that doesn’t really matter anymore (similarly, ‘should’ was traditionally the first person of ‘would’).

  2. This sounds a little like arguments I’ve had with people about ‘y’all.’ I tell people it means ‘you all’ and refers to a group of people, because ‘you,’ can mean just one.

    Many people don’t buy that, either.

    • I completely agree with you about the meaning of “y’all,” and the dictionary backs you up (I just looked it up). “Y’all” might be (technically) improper, but at least it serves a purpose.

  3. I’m a Southerner, and I use “ain’t” and yet I’m a journalism major and wannabe writer. It has its place. But you’re right…I will contain myself to “I ain’t…” and never “he/she/they ain’t…”. That would be grammatically incorrect. I never ever thought of that. 🙂

  4. I actually hear ain’t quite a lot among my family. I think of it as sort of dialect thing, since the family that uses it originated in the Southern US.

  5. I hear it ALL THE TIME in my neck of the woods. You cain’t escape it. It’s as common as “theirselves” and “y’all”.

    • I hear “y’all” all the time (and have no problem with that) and the occasional “cain’t,” but I really don’t think I hear “ain’t” that much anymore. And “theirselves”??? I really hope this isn’t a situation where people are saying “theirselves,” and I’m not noticing it.

  6. I just used it in a post the other day because I was playing with the lyric “ain’t what she used to be”, but it pained me so to do it.

    • I think “ain’t” is great in songs because it’s easy to say (waaay easier than “isn’t) and that one syllable can probably help keep the lyric patterns consistent (I’m just guessing because I’ve never tried writing a song before).

  7. The nuns always told us “ain’t” wasn’t a word and forbade us from using it. Since I’m so damn scared of nuns, I do my best to never use the word… 🙂

  8. Shucks, I use “ain’t” frequently and I must have frustrated the grammar police! Thanks for pointing it out!

  9. “ain’t” is ‘improper’ because as you say it is used by low class speakers, reinforced by the educationists’ attitude you describe. Otherwise known as snobbery. To my ear (Australian English) it sounds American too. An equivalent is ‘gunna’ – as in “I’m gunna go and light the barbie now”, which you would write “gonna”. Which to me looks like “goner”, as in “If he’s still in the water after the shark siren’s gone, he’s a goner.” And so on …

  10. I ain’t kiddin’…thanks for stopping by “Swords, Specters, & Stuff.” 🙂

  11. Ain’t, ain’t and ain’t. Bring it on, Grammar Police.

  12. Ain’t no reason to stop sayin ain’t!

  13. Ombretta D permalink

    I hope you actually read my post and weren’t just trying to get another follower like the majority of people who like my posts, since I really enjoyed this fine piece of explanation. Either which way, mission accomplished: you now have a +1 follower.

  14. I amn’t gonna (shout out to the australian guy’s comment) ever stop saying aint. It sounds colloquial and personable when speaking in person. And if someone happens to consider me uneducated or low class, I’ll resort to using an elevated vocabulary and employ terms such as ‘colloquial.’ Or I could merely explain the etymology of the word ‘aint’ to show my sophistication.

    Great post 😉

  15. msperfectpatty permalink

    I’ve never looked so closely at this word but I must confess I use it all the time! Usually in casual situations when I’m asking a question. Ain’t that something? (Completely incorrect I know.)
    Love this post!

  16. Great post. “Ain’t” definitely sounds unintelligent, even if it does roll off the tongue. I will sometimes use it in my English class, only facetiously, of course. My students always call me out on it, which of course always leads to a discussion of etymology, so I end up winning. I think “ain’t” is dying out in our society. I’ve heard it a lot less in the last few years, even though I’m surrounded by high schoolers all the time. Maybe a promising sign?

  17. I live in England and for my local area, “ain’t”, “en’t” and “an’t” are pretty common. All I can really think of about these words is that they are good at shortening down sentences – of course, there are other uses and negative points about these terms.

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