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Why is “ain’t” scorned?

Dr. Gillian Bartlett, Advisor & Content Expert

Dr. Gillian Bartlett, Advisor & Content Expert

Why is “ain’t” scorned--083760-edited.png“Isn’t” and “aren’t,” “didn’t” and “don’t,” “shouldn’t” and “won’t” are all considered perfectly respectable contractions. So it doesn’t really seem fair that “ain’t” is frowned upon. Dictionaries still label “ain’t” as “nonstandard” or “uneducated,” while those other contractions are given a pass. Even your spellcheck might still underline “ain’t” with a disapproving red squiggle that calls it out as an error.

“Ain’t” actually has a long history that takes it back to the 1600s. It first appeared in print as “an’t.” That soon morphed into “ain’t,” often appearing in the speech of upper class characters in 18th and 19th century English literature. Despite the disapproval of grammarians and teachers, the expression has remained robust ever since.

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It’s easy to see where it came from. Just examine the following table of contractions:

Number Person Base Form Verb contracted “Not” contracted
Singular 1 I am not I'm not I ….?
2 You are not You're not You aren’t
3 He is not
She is not
It is not
He’s not
She’s not
It’s not
He isn’t
She isn’t
It isn’t
Plural  1 We are not We’re not We aren’t
2 You are not You’re not You aren’t
3 They are not They’re not They aren’t

If you follow the pattern, the logical contraction for “I” in the final column of the chart highlighted above is “I amn’t.” Of course this is pretty difficult to pronounce. So it’s not surprising that it became “an’t” and then, probably to reflect how it was actually being pronounced with a long “a” sound, it became “ain’t.”

This troubled history might account for the scorn heaped upon “ain’t.” So, too, is the fact that it has acted as a substitute for more than “I am not.” You might have heard it in place of “isn’t” as in “Tell me it ain’t so” (see Murray Head) and “haven’t” as in “I ain’t done much healing” (from Adele).  

Whatever the case, “ain’t” is not yet approved of in academic or formal writing. So if you’re a fan but want to play it safe, you should confine “ain’t” to popular songs or informal conversations – for the time being at least.

 

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