Ain’t isn’t in the dictionary. Ain’t isn’t a real word.

Did you ever hear these growing up? Maybe spoken by a teacher or a parent?

Today, I’m going to tell you why you need to forget that advice.

Amn’t and aren’t

Ain’t has an interesting history. It actually started in multiple forms, but two in particular stand out: amn’t and aren’t. Amn’t is a contraction of am not, as in, “I am not going to the store” and was in use as early as 1618. Aren’t, of course, is a contraction of are not, as in “You are not going to the store,” and it appeared around 60 years later.

In amn’t, however, the double nasal consonant sound of the M and the N was just asking for further contraction, and in less than 80 years, we end up getting an’t (or sometimes a’n’t).

With English speakers who don’t pronounce their R’s, eventually aren’t became an’t as well. In fact, both usages of an’t appeared almost simultaneously.

Isn’t

Around the same time that amn’t and aren’t were evolving into an’tisn’t, too, was changing. It was sometimes written as in’t or en’t, and it doesn’t take much to switch over to an’t, especially if it’s already being used for several pronouns (I, you, they, and we).

Hasn’t and haven’t

Also in the late 17th century, people were further contracting the common contractions of hasn’t and haven’t, eliminating the S and V, respectively, creating han’t. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for the H sound to drop from han’t, and it, too, developed a long A sound.

Ain’t

As an’t progressed, its vowel pronunciation took on a long A sound, which — within about 50 years of an’t appearing in print — began to be represented in writing as ai instead of just a. Interestingly, for about a century, ain’t and an’t often appeared together in print.

Why we need ain’t

Even though most people dismiss ain’t as non-standard (at best) or illiterate (at worst), I believe it fulfills a useful role. Consider this table:

Pronoun Ain’t To be not To have not
I I ain’t I’m not I haven’t
You You ain’t You aren’t You haven’t
S/he S/he ain’t S/he isn’t S/he haven’t
We We ain’t We aren’t We haven’t
You You ain’t You aren’t You haven’t
They They ain’t They aren’t They haven’t

Here, we have the various uses of ain’t and their corresponding usages of to be not and to have not. Take a look under “to be not“ under “I”. That’s the only place in the entire table that doesn’t have a contraction incorporating not in its construction.

Currently, the English language has no widespread solution to this problem. The Scottish use amnae, as well as amn’t (which the Irish also use), but this usage isn’t common with other English speakers.

But ain’t plays that role, and has done so for centuries. In fact, everyone used it right up until the 19th century:

Although “ain’t” is now a symbol of the illiterati, it was routinely used by the upper classes as well as the lower, by the educated and otherwise, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the word, or variations of it, can be found in the letters or diaries, of Swift, Lamb, Byron, Tennyson, and Henry Adams, for example, as well as characters of all classes in the novels of Fielding, Austen, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, and Trollope.” (O’Conner, Patricia T. and Stewart Kellerman. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. Random House. 2010. p. 48.)

For some reason, something changed in the 19th century, and people arbitrarily decided that ain’t was vulgar:

We can see how these forms work by looking at the most stigmatized word in the language, ain’t—the word that every five-year-old is taught is not a word. But why not? Just because.… We have uncontroversial contractions for is not (isn’t) and are not (aren’t), so what’s wrong with reducing am not to ain’t? The problem is that it was marked as a substandard word in the nineteenth century, people have been repeating the injunction ever since, and no amount of logic can undo it. It’s forbidden simply because it’s been forbidden.” (Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. 2009. pp.15 – 16.)

If it was in common usage for centuries by upper and lower class, and it functionally fills a role today (even if only vernacularly), then there should be no reason to continue to turn our noses up at it.

Sure one could make the argument that we don’t need ain’t for its other uses (ain’t instead of aren’t or hasn’t, for example), and I’m completely fine with that argument. That still leaves us with needing a solution for am not however.

And we have the solution in ain’t.

One more thing. With they gaining popularity as a gender-neutral option for a a third person singular pronoun, we need a singular contraction of to be not. Currently, they is paired with aren’t, as in, “Bob and Sue? They aren’t returning until after supper.” When used as a singular pronoun, it sounds awkward (Did you hear about Pat? They aren’t going to the party tomorrow.). By using ain’t with the singular, third-person they, we can avoid that awkward construction (Did you hear about Pat? They ain’t going to the party tomorrow.)

Sure, it still sounds awkward, but that’s just because you give too much authority to what you were told when you were 5.

About Kim Siever

I am a copywriter and copyeditor. I blog on writing tips mostly, but I sometimes throw in my thoughts about running a small business. Follow me on Twitter at @hotpepper.

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