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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