(I never say “yes”—just “yeah,” all drawn out and slow like molasses, as Mrs. Semba, the librarian, described it. That’s one reason I sound so American. That, and I know a lot of slang.)
from It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel
by Firoozeh Dumas
Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2016
Although Mom was not a grammarian in the formal sense, she spoke distinctly, purposefully, and correctly. And encouraged us to, too. My impeccable grammar was useful in elementary school where I consistently aced grammar tests. When kids asked me how I knew the correct answers, I always told the truth. It sounded right. It mostly still does.
Rules abound in the study of grammar and its sibling, linguistics. Most rules help make our speech and writing clear, understandable. Sometimes, even though a phrase sounds cringe-worthy to me, it doesn’t affect the meaning. Lots of people use the subjective case when their subject is plural like “Ron and I.” Here’s an example: “Frances watched a movie with Ron and I.” Oh! That really does make my skin crawl. The same person would never say Frances watched a movie with I. “Ron and me” is correct. It’s the object of the preposition “with.”
It’s an over-correction, I get it. Like little kids say “I grew two new tooth-es” when they’re learning to speak. Teeth is irregular. Over-corrections are common and understandable. We’re told so many times in our Language Arts or English grammar class to use “I,” that many people over-correct and only use “I,” even when me is correct.
Not all grammar comes easily to me. I still have to look up lay/lie, farther/further, and less/fewer. Does it all really matter? Well, yes, sometimes. In everyday conversation? No.
So, why isn’t ain’t accepted as standard English? Languages evolve. Words are added, especially in new technology fields and meteorology. Unused and irrelevant words are lost or replaced. Sometimes words combine to create something new. Here's a whole list of portmanteaus, words like chortle made from chuckle and snort, or brunch, from breakfast and lunch. Does anyone call a 4:00 meal lupper? or maybe linner? Dunch?
Ain’t has been referred to as the most stigmatized word in the English language. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was perfectly acceptable, even among the nobility. It was during Dickens’s popularity that the stigma began. His common and low-class characters used ain’t. Because of Dickens’s rock-star status, his words and usage gained their own status: standard speech. Ain’t fell out of favor. Who wanted to sound like a low-life Dickens character?
Why ain’t is so stigmatized today is controversial, though. Most dictionaries and style manual consider ain’t non-standard unless the speaker/writer is using it for emphasis. Most public speakers only use it for attention, like an underline or bold print.
The controversy stems from the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Both are useful. Prescriptive grammar rules became prevalent in the 1800s. An increase in written communication, Webster’s first dictionary that promoted spelling conformity, and a rise in university attendance all worked together to be promote “correct” and “standard” language usage. Descriptive rules are more a function of sociology. Their purpose is to record how people speak and write. The correctness is in the recording, not in the communication itself.
In parts of Great Britain, ain’t is perfectly acceptable. It is used as a contraction for the negative form of “am I.” Since English tends to avoid two nasal sounds placed closely together, the m from “am” and the n from “not” did NOT come together for form amn’t I, but instead, the m fell away and formed “an’t I.” With time, “ain’t I.”
Writers like ain’t, especially lyricists. It adds color to their writing. For example
“Ain’t it the truth?” the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.
“Ain’t I a woman?” Sojourner Truth
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” Bill Withers
“Ain’t too proud to beg” The Temptations
“Ain’t gonna rain no more” commonly attributed to Wendell Hall
“He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” The Hollies
“You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” Bachman–Turner Overdrive
So use ain’t, if you want. It’s a real word. It’s a useful and efficient negative contraction of every state-of-being verb: am, are, was, had, been… plus a singular or plural pronoun. I ain’t kidding!
When I spoke to my daughter on her way to work this morning, I told her about the four deer I saw gallop through my yard. Wait. What? Do deer gallop? I found a list of animals that gallop on Wild Explained. Those on the list use a three-step gait like a horse. Alas, deer are not on that list. They do gallop, though. They use a rotary style of movement. The difference is pretty muscularly scientific and the videos went by pretty fast. I might come back to this if I can find something in slo-mo. Ooh! a portmanteau!
Be curious! (and love language)
FB: Although I haven’t deleted my Twitter account, I haven’t posted my blog there for several weeks. If you find me here on FaceBook, please let me know. I’ll keep posting if you keep reading! Have a great week!