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Is Ain’t A Word?

July 6, 2016
If it's in the title of a song, it has to be a word. (image via wikimedia)

If it’s in the title of a song, it has to be a word. (image via wikimedia)

40 years ago, nobody thought ain’t was a real word.  After all, it wasn’t in the dictionary.  At least, ain’t wasn’t in any of the dictionaries that we students looked in.  The conventional wisdom back then was that if a word wasn’t in the dictionary, then it wasn’t really a word.  It never occurred to me then that a dictionary could change its mind.  Nowadays, if enough people start using words, then the dictionary will bend its judgement and include them, infuriating purists and grammarians everywhere.

If any non-word should become a word, it’s ain’t.  I don’t have proof to back this up, but it’s probably been one of the most commonly used non-words over several generations.

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.

In high school, I even remember a couple teachers who frequently said ain’t.  One was a science teacher, and when a bold student corrected her, the science teacher retorted:

“I ain’t a English teacher.”

After the bold student corrected the usage of the words a and an, the science teacher repeated:

“I ain’t a English teacher.”

If teachers were using ain’t in front of their classes, we thought, then it had to be a word, no matter what the English teachers said.  The English teachers were outnumbered by every other teacher.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary now states that ain’t is “widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated.”

I would love to have seen my science teacher’s reaction to that.

Even though the word ain’t is considered improper, there’s a logic to its usage.  Most (if not all) forms of the verb be have contractions.  Is not has isn’t.  Was not has wasn’t.  Were 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.

Part of that stigma might be because ain’t is a contraction.  English teachers used to instruct us students not to use contractions in our writing.  As far as contractions go, ain’t is probably the most extreme because it’s often used in situations where am not should not be used.

For example, am not could be used after the pronoun I , but it shouldn’t be used after youhe, she, it, we, and they.  Most people use ain’t indiscriminately after any pronoun or subject.  I’m just speculating, but ain’t might be frowned upon more than any other contraction simply because it’s so misused.  There’s a correct way to use ain’t, and there are many wrong ways.

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Correct Example

am not going to read A Song of Ice and Fire until George RR Martin actually finishes it.

That is grammatically correct.

  I ain’t  going to read A Song of Ice and Fire until George RR Martin actually finishes it.

If ain’t is ever proper, the above sentence has the correct usage.  My science teacher was using ain’t correctly, and I didn’t know it.

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Incorrect Example

We am not ever going to read another James Patterson novel.

To be correct, the phrase should be are not instead of am not.

We ain’t ever going to read another James Patterson novel.

Since am not was not grammatically correct in that situation, then ain’t shouldn’t be either.

I kind of wish that the dictionary would outright state that ain’t is not a word.  We need higher standards in almost every part of our lives, and language is one of them.  That doesn’t mean I’d ever correct anybody for saying ain’t.  Correcting grammar is worse than using improper grammar.

No matter what the dictionary decides, ain’t might never become a universally accepted word.  It’s too controversial and has had too long of a history.  And, if it ever became proper, we’d have to find a new way to annoy grammarians.

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What do you think?  Should ain’t be considered a real word?  If ain’t did become a real word, how else would we annoy grammarians?

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7 Comments
  1. Double and multiple negatives–I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ more about it, nohow, noway.

  2. Interesting. I ain’t hungry. If ain’t isn’t a word, why does my phone dictionary not underline it like it does for a wrong spelling. Just saying, its not really common here, except from some folks who travelled to the US for some days and come back with an American accent.😂 I remember I used to think American English was really poor because I thought they speak the same way they did in most American movies I saw back then. Along the line, I made some friends and found out their spoken English was different, excellent like the British English. Curious cat that I am, I asked why. And was told the ones spoken in those movies were not appropriate. That being said, I still ain’t hungry.😂

  3. I think we need to worry about grammarians having nothing to get annoyed about if ain’t becomes an acceptable word. There’s always the usual annoyance of “there/their/they’re”.

  4. Ain’t was good enough for Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly…

  5. I ain’t fer it or agin it:)

  6. I have found that finding new ways to annoy grammarians is actually not as difficult as one may speculate. Give them a red pen, and any paper will bleed, no matter how much effort was placed on proper grammar.

  7. Teachers are useless unless they uphold a higher standard than just about everybody else. Straighten them out or fire their asses!
    There’s too much dumbing down going on. Young people don’t need to have everything made easy, but ideals to reach for.

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