For the past 150 years, the ain’t forecast has been mostly heavy showers with some sunny patches – much like a European summer – but how do things look now?
Here is a brief run-down of the prescriptivists-family reaction to ain’t over time:
- Many mistakes mended (1886): ‘The contraction ain’t for isn’t, is a vulgarism which ought not to need criticism. The only legitimate contraction of I am not, is I’m not.’ (1886:233)
- Fowler (1926): ‘A(i)n’t is merely colloquial, & as used for isn’t is an uneducated blunder and serves no useful purpose. But it is a pity that a(i)n’t for am not, being a natural contraction and supplying a real want, should shock us as though tarred with the same brush.’ (1926:45)
- An A.B.C of English Usage (1936): ‘ain’t, an’t… have not yet been promoted to writing, though a contraction for am not is badly needed’ (1936:17)
- Partridge (1954): ‘… an error so illliterate that I blush to record it.’ (1954:7)
Good Word Guide (2000): ‘As a contraction of are not, is not, have not, or has not, ain’t is wrong. It is however generally widely used in speech… As a contraction of am not, ain’t is regarded by some users as slightly more acceptable, especially in informal American English.’ (2000:10)
The black sheep of the English language? But what would our favourite songs be without them?
‘You have not seen anything yet’ – (Bachman Turner 1974)
‘You are not anything but a hound dog’ – (Elvis Presley 1956)
‘(I am) not misbehaving’ – (Louis Armstrong 1929)
Welcome to the library of rock and roll?!
A more recent approach has been more liberal (and ain’t it time!): Nunberg explains the popularity of ain’t as a form of ‘linguistic slumming’, and the most recent edition of the OED writes: ‘used mostly for comic effect.’ – Would Ali G and the characters of Little Britain have gotten quite so far without it?
In other words, ain’t is being chained to the domains of cliche and comic genre. The last song and dance of the fat lady before she slips quietly away to get a job in banking …
Really? I find it hard to imagine …
Here’s a quick survey to find out how ain’t is – or ain’t – being used:
How natural do these sentences sound to you in each of the following situations:
As a teenager to your mum when she says you’ve got to stay home and study:
‘I ain’t got any homework from school!’
To your friends in any social context:
‘I ain’t ever eaten sushi before’
Down at the local pub, in response to a layabout friend’s news of a possible promotion:
‘Ain’t never gonna happen!
At the first glimpse of sunshine:
‘Ain’t it a lovely day?!’
To your boss in the stationary cupboard:
‘We ain’t got no paper bags left, neither’
Now, be honest. We don’t all speak as proper as we fink.
Fowler, H.W. (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Manser, M. H. (2000) (ed.) Bloomsbury Good Word Guide. Answers everyday language problems [5th ed.]. London: Bloomsbury.
Nunberg, G. (2002) Ain’t misbehavin’.
Partridge, E. (1954). The Concise Usage and Abusage: A short guide to good English. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Tibbald, M.H. (1886). Many Mistakes Mended. Tibbals & Sons. New York
Treble, H.A. & Vallins, G.H. (1936). An A.B.C of English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.