What’s Wrong with “Ain’t”

By Maeve Maddox

Back when I taught junior high school English I used to tell my students that they were allowed to use the word “ain’t” in their speaking and writing.

When they recovered their composure I went on to explain that they could use it in only one context.

They could not say or write

I ain’t

because there was a standard expression they could use:

I’m not.

They could not say or write

He ain’t, she ain’t, or they ain’t

because there were standard forms for those:

He isn’t, she isn’t, they aren’t.

They could, however, say or write

Ain’t I?

I pointed out that the usual “standard” form of “aren’t I” was not exactly grammatical. Would anyone ever say “are I not?”

My eccentric rule had the effect of making my students think about the verbs is and are.

And it made us all realize how seldom anyone has occasion to say ain’t I? anyway.

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29 Responses to “What’s Wrong with “Ain’t””

  • Sarah

    I would never say “are I not?” because I would never say “I are…”. However, I would (and often do) say “am I not?”.

  • cmdweb

    You don’t hear “aren’t I” being used in speech very much either. I do hear “amn’t I” but that’s more likely just a colloquial thing where I live.

  • A Common Reader

    “Are I not” is usually used as “Am I not” in my studies.

  • Rod

    Well if it’s a tag question like; I’m late. aren’t I? it’s right so stop saying am I not? you’d better say ain’t I?

  • Philip Dragonetti

    I agree with you allowed use of “ain’t”. I feel that language should always strive to provide a single correct word for a single meaning.

    Pretentious people annoy the heck out of me. They think they are being “educated’ by saying “aren’t I”–not realizing that they just failed a question on an IQ test.

    Another pet peeve of mine are the pretentious people who say
    “Oh–I feel badly about his mother dying.” Would these rocket engineer’s say “I feel goodly about his mother’s recovery.”?

    Another pet peeve is people who say ” Let’s try and acheive a perfect score on the test.”—when they should say “Let’s try TO acheive a perfect score on the test.”

    Recently I was reading a book by Baldacci—and he seems to have dropped the word ‘into” from the English language. He says stuff like ” He put his hand in his pocket to grab his gun.” What’s wrong with “He put his hand into his pocked to grab his gun.”?

    Also, in a vein different from writing, that is “pronunciation”— why do the pretentious pronounce “piano player” as Peenist?—when the only pronunciation is PYA-nist. A PYA-nist plays the pya-no ( 2 syllables)—and the peenist plays the —well ,—.

    Enough,
    Thanks for your very interesting work.
    Phil

  • Sarah Turner

    ‘Ain’t I’ should never be used. It’s awful and will make you sound like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

    It should always be ‘aren’t I’. Ain’t is ok if you’re being ironic/knowing/smug. As in ‘watch Katie and Peter on TV last night? High brow it ain’t.’

  • Jeanie

    My linguist cousin-in-law says the word “ain’t” evolved with Scottish immigrants who tried to stick with the structure of their language when translating and tried to say “am’nt.” It is rather awkward to have the m and n together like that, so ain’t evolved.

  • Maeve

    I’m not encouraging anyone to say “ain’t” in any context. I just feel that it makes more sense as a contraction of “am I not?” than “aren’t I?” does.

    For you ESL speakers, “ain’t” is one of those English shibboleths that one uses at the risk of being thought an ignoramus.

    I just felt like sowing a little discord today.
    🙂

  • nanerl

    My remark is a remark on the statement below:

    I have been known to say and/or write “Am I not?” and to feel quite confident in knowing that my subject and verb match. I have rarely been know to say “ain’t I?” unless I’m feeling the absurdity of the situation.

    “They could, however, say or write
    Ain’t I?
    I pointed out that the usual “standard” form of “aren’t I” was not exactly grammatical. Would anyone ever say “are I not?””

  • TeresaE

    Great points all.

    But, I have to be contrary I guess, ain’t would be a 100% usable word if constructing dialogue for any number of our fellow citizens, in thousands of areas across the country.

    I grew up in Hicksville, USA. Being a redneck was a badge of honor many wore. You were a hundred times more likely to hear “ain’t” than “aren’t” in everyday conversation.

    If my story revolves around locals, then to be authentic I would be forced to offend the grammar police and use good ole ain’t.

    To do otherwise would come off as non-realistic, especially to my readers who live daily surrounded by the characters I remember.

  • Dee

    “Oh–I feel badly about his mother dying.” Would these rocket engineer’s say “I feel goodly about his mother’s recovery.”?

    Hilariously, one of my pet peeves is the use of apostrophes in plurals. But, if I write a rant about it, no doubt there will be some other grammatical error present…

  • Victoria Hall

    Ain’t is not yet accepted as Standard English, but it is perfectly acceptable in social conversations and in written dialogues—inside quotation marks. I have a feeling it will soon be added to the dictionary. I’m writing my second novel, and I still cringe every time I used the word wanna. Describing an orgasm comes much easier to me than writing that word.

  • Dave

    Jeanie’s reply (#7) has always been my understanding as well. “I ain’t, he isn’t, they aren’t.” It was frowned upon because of wide misuse (he ain’t, they ain’t) and eventually deemed categorically improper, though it has always been a grammatically correct contraction for “am not”. Or am I wrong? I consider it a judg(e)ment call. 😉 If you know you’re using it correctly, good for you. If you understand there are people ignorant of its correct usage who will consider you uneducated for using it, even better. If the purpose of your communication is to communicate your ideas, you still succeed.

  • Peter

    Umm…Philip; the instrument “piano” (as opposed to the direction on sheet music) has three syllables (“pee-AN-oh”, not “pya-no”), and the person who plays one is properly called a “PEE-an-ist” (again, three syllables — not a “pee-nist”). The word “piano” (pya-no) does exist, though not in reference to the instrument, but there’s no such word as “PYA-nist”.

  • Alice2

    I say “ain’t” in conversation. I know it’s not correct, but sometimes it’s good just to break the rules.

    I’m awaiting so many arguments against that sentence.

    I also say “y’all”. Y’all makes more grammatical sense, given that it means “you all”.

    Maybe I’m a hick– I’m not denying it!– but I see nothing wrong with the sentence, “What are y’all talking about?”

  • Wakas Mir

    I ain’t never going to use ain’t again.

    But on the serious note.. amazing way of showing how and when to use it or not to 🙂

  • Peter

    Alice2: I occasionally use “y’all”, when it’s important to distinguish between singular and plural “you” (the Right Thing, I suppose, would be to use “thou” for the singular, but that makes me want to use archaic verb forms as well, and makes people laugh at me… :)), but I ain’t never used “ain’t”.

  • Garbeld

    I ain’t gonna stop using the word “ain’t” just for some people who ironically think they’re being good grammatical pedants by insisting on its illegitimacy.
    What I do not understand is why you don’t allow “I ain’t” in place of “I’m not”. Should they not say, “I am not”, also? =P
    Then again, your reasoning for disallowing the other uses of “ain’t” seem not to be concerned with the fact that “ain’t” is “am not”, which is inappropriate entirely for those instances, which I think is more important than the existence of alternative phrasings.
    (If we’re only to phrase any given thought in particular manners dictated by convention rather than rule, poets should be quickly out of function).

  • Boo Blog Blogger

    I’m loving the above post by Philip Dragonetti.

  • Afreen Akbany

    Good stuff!

  • Billy

    Ain´t nothing wrong with ain´t. It is just that you´ve gotta know when and how to use it. I use it daily, and I ain´t from any hicktown either.

  • T. Vilaça

    I ain’t got nothing else to add but a little detail:

    “Ain’t” may sound really bad for some listeners when it comes to redundancy:

    I ain’t got nothing = I got nothing.
    I ain’t got no choice = I got no choice.

    We don’t say ‘I didn’t do nothing’ or ‘I did anything’.
    But with ‘ain’t’, oddly enough, we do.

    Grammar is not the matter.
    I assume it is a matter of emphasis.

    So, I must say I probably agree with y’al..ooops, you all.

  • ibooklover123

    I have a problem with the last post that represents my main problem with the word “ain’t” in common usage.

    In the translation “I ain’t got no choice” the poster claims that it really means “I got no choice” but really it means “I have no choice”

    The whole ain’t thing is like a gateway slang word into a world of double negatives and improper tenses and satanism.

  • Dave

    Booklover: I thought they were being facetious. I think, also, by saying, “grammar is not the matter,” they meant, “many sentences which include ‘ain’t’ would still be grammatically incorrect without it.” That is what I gleaned from their examples, anyway. The statement, “I assume it is a matter of emphasis,” baffles me, but not to the degree which “freshness” baffles me in toilet tissue commercials. At any rate, if it’s only a gateway to satanism with a small “s”, sounds like a party to me.

  • Tiago Vilaça

    Hi there,

    I feel like apologizing. Booklover is right when he states that the correct idea for ‘I ain’t got no choice’ is ‘I HAVE no choice’. Although, it doesn’t really matter. My point was about the repeated information which is unnecessary in English. We don’t say ‘He doesn’t knows’ nor ‘I did slept’. Once is enough.

    My intention is just to highlight the fact that we use it intentionally in order to be more emphatic. Don’t you agree? Double negatives are taught as beeing wrong and that’s exactly the reason why we use it so often: just to have someone’s attention.

    Dave, I’m really sorry to ask you such a dumb question, but I can’t help it: Why did my sentence baffle you? Is it that bad?
    Or am I beeing naive once more?
    I’m more confused now.

    After all, you guys are saying that it is Ok to use it or not?
    The matter is relevant or not?
    Are we gonna get anywhere here?

    I’m sorry if I caused more confusion. I just think it’s ok depending on the situation. Lots of expressions we use daily are ‘wrong’ according to grammar. We choose to use them to shape our speech with the exact level of emphasis ( now I’m afraid of using this word) we intent. Don’t we?

  • Garbeld

    @ibooklover123:
    I wouldn’t say that “ain’t” is the gateway slang word, but that the issue of improper grammar is the result of a far more fundamental problem of people not bothering to learn and understand the language they use on a rational level, instead being content to rely on our human faculties of pattern recognition to pick up on the way language is COMMONLY used.

    Also, what is wrong with double negatives? They may be redundant, but there is no inherent logical error or risk of ambiguity in them that comes immediately to my mind.

  • Emma

    I’m intrigued reading this – coming from England (Midlands), I hear “Aren’t I?” much more than “Ain’t” …

    That said, I have memories of sitting on the top deck of a bus as a teenager & hearing two younger kids in front of me discussing the houses that we were passing:

    “That’s a posh house, ain’t it” said the first, “you mean, ‘innit'” said the second firmly!

  • Andrew Toynbee

    After having read Emma’s comment above, I remembered hearing local English kids using both “I ain’t” and “I i’nt” – as if it had stemmed from “I isn’t”.

    Funny old world, ain’t it?

  • BS Murphy

    When I was young we used the word “aint” and we knew what it meant. It was a “word” because of common usage regardless of the speaker’s intentions.

    Later, while still very young, I learned that, “ain’t” aint a word and the reasoning behind it. I never knew there was supposed to be an apostrophe and that it was actually meant to be a contraction of two words.

    I say since there aren’t two words (except I just learned the above article), that aint IS a word without the apostrophe by way of common usage, and knowledge. Now, put THAT into the dictionary!

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