Wednesday, February 04, 2009

WNW: A Place for “Ain’t”

I’m all for using correct grammar. (You know that, right? Especially if you’ve read Word Nerd Wednesday for any length of time.)

That said, the word nerd in me has much joy discovering fun and interesting grammar tidbits in odd places.

One such oddity is the word ain’t.

While I won’t advocate the average person using it (particularly if you hope to sound educated), get this:

In English, there is a grammatical place for ain’t. Really.

Check it out:

First off, let's look at the basic “to be” chart with all the regular pronouns.

Singular:
I am
You are
He/She/It is

Plural:
We are
You are
They are

With me so far? Good. Now let’s negate them:

Singular:
I am not
You are not
He/She /It is not

Plural:
We are not
You are not
They are not

Simple so far, yes?

Now, since we generally speak in contractions, let’s make these into contractions, starting with the plural side this time:

Plural:
We aren’t
You aren’t
They aren’t

Now for singular, starting at the bottom:
He/She/It isn’t
You aren’t
I . . . ????

There is no contraction for “am not.”

What could you use? I am’t???

Eureka! I ain’t!

See? English has a grammatical hole—a vacuum. And vacuums tend to be filled. So I ain’t came about because of that hole.

Grammatically speaking, the existence of ain’t makes perfect sense.

But since we’ve be taught that ain’t is wrong, we compensate by making a contraction instead out of “I am” (I’m) instead of “am not,” yielding, I’m not.

According to my trusty OED, ain’t has been around as a contraction of “am not” quite a bit longer (since 1778) than won’t has been around as a contraction for “will not” (since 1857).

Don’t (even older: 1670) and won’t were debated by the educated masses and often derided at first until they were accepted as perfectly fine. So why are these two acceptable but the other one isn’t?

No reason beyond ain't losing the roll of the grammatical dice. The debate could have ended with ain't being standard and won't being "wrong."

Note that none of these contractions are grammatically superior than any of the others. If anything, ain’t makes more grammatical sense than the others. There’s a specific hole it fills, after all.

We’re just used to one of them being “wrong,” and as a result, it’s not part of the standard dialect used by educated speakers.

This is one more example of how dialects (even Black English Vernacular, which frankly sounds totally random and incorrect compared to Standard English) actually make sense when you break them down. They have patterns and rules of their own, even when the users don’t know it.

It also shows that the standard dialect doesn’t necessarily make any more sense than another dialect. It’s not better or superior in any way; it’s just the standard.

Naturally, we still need to know the standard and use it, so you won’t hear me using ain’t, even if it’s technically not grammatically inferior.

Post Script:
And in rather horrifying news, Birmingham, England has decided that apostrophes are no longer necessary. They've been abolished from street signs.

City councillor Mullany said, "Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed. . . . More importantly, they confuse people."

Um, WHAT?!!!! Read the article here.

24 comments:

Becky said...

I read about those crazy Birmingham-ites and was saddened they had so little regard for punctuation.

::Jan:: said...

I ain't surprised Annette. I have an aunt that uses it all the time. I love your grammar lessons.

Luisa Perkins said...

When Christian was little, he always said, "No, I amn't."

I'm fine with 'ain't,' especially when it comes to rock and roll songs. "You aren't anything but a hound dog" just doesn't have any swagger to it.

the letter Bee said...

I'm so glad we've found a place for ain't. It's been out in the cold for too long.

Kristina P. said...

So interesting!

And I now think of you when I hear someone use incorrect verbage or grammar.

Someone said "supposabbly" yesterday, and I immediately thought of you. I don't even know how to spell that.

Josi said...

Okay, that was very cool--not about the signs, about the ain't lesson. Fascinating.

Lara said...

I remember learning this very thing in one of my lingustics classes. So interesting.

And so crazy about the signs in England!

Heffalump said...

When I was a a kid we would chant "You cain't say ain't 'cuz ain't just ain't a word."
We said it cain't so it would rhyme...
I think we were obnoxious children.

Kaylynn said...

Too funny!

Kimberly said...

That is fascinating!

Jami said...

They can't abolish apostrophes! That's just wrong. I couldn't even say any of these sentences without them.

Nice job on ain't.

Heidi Ashworth said...

This is so darn fascinating! I love it! I have to say that "don't" makes more sense to me than "won't". It's as bad as ain't, ain't it? (See, that's the problem--people use ain't as "isn't it", which is already a contraction). And the apostrophe thing--yikes! How can one city, even if it is Birmingham which is a bit bigger than, say, Warwick, make that decision on its own? (at least I don't have to think about whether or not "its" needs an apostrophe b/c Birmingham says so!) It totally don't make sense!! (I'm ain't as funny as I think, am I?

Heather B. Moore said...

My husband uses ain't. So my kids sometimes do--until I quickly correct them.

pwells said...

My doctor used ain't yesterday while talking to me.

david mcmahon said...

I ain't opposed to the word ``ain't''.

.... and I do a bit of writing - but have not yet used the word in a novel.....

Larsens said...

There's nothing like a Finn, who is selling furniture in Santa Monica, telling a customer:"You ain't gonna get your money back, lady!" Yeah, I know, a long story but I worked with the guy, and that's all I remember about him. It stuck because at the time it was so funny.

Heather of the EO said...

There are so many people in the small Minnesota town I grew up in that are going to be so relieved to use ain't more freely and with respect :)

Alison Wonderland said...

My kids used amn't too and I remember going through the same charts (in my mind, I didn't write them out or anything, I'm not that OCD;)) and figuring that amn't actually worked just fine. And I like it more than ain't, it makes more sense.

Unfortunately I find myself using ain't. Never seriously but as a joke, like when I say I ain't never been to American Fark. And obviously I know it's a joke and Sean knows it a joke but I realized one day that the kids probably didn't know that. I'm working on it.

And what the heck "apostrophies denote ownership"? and missing letters and... that guys a crack head. (See, it just looks wrong!)

Jaime Theler said...

My boys were reading your post over my shoulder and started poking me in the shoulder saying, "See! We *can* say ain't!"

And as for the apostrophe being politically incorrect. Wha...?

Annette Lyon said...

Then your sons sort of missed the point, didn't they? :)

Julie Wright said...

This is one of the many reasons I love you

LisAway said...

Ain't ain't a word and you ain't supposed to say it say ain't five times and you ain't goin' to heaven. (did everyone say this growing up?)

We all used amn't for fun growing up.

I'm not techinically supposed to be commenting, I'm only allowed to lurk a little, but I had to comment on this.

Jenn said...

I've never been so riled up over punctuation!
Seriously? No more apostrophes?
Maybe they're celebrating April Fool's Day a bit early this year.

An Ordinary Mom said...

What is this world coming to?! England is banning their apostrophes? Seriously? Well, I suppose with the global economy in meltdown mode, it would be cheaper to leave off the punctuation ... but still?!?

Glad to know I have your blessings if I use the word ain't :) !!

Here is another topic for WNW. How about a lesson on intensive reflexives? (Is that how you even say it: yourself, ourselves, etc.) Why is English so hard to use?!?

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