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.
With me so far? Good. Now let’s negate them:
I am not
You are not
He/She /It is not
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:
Now for singular, starting at the bottom:
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.
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.
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