Ain't is a contraction for "am not", "is not", "are not", "has not", and "have not" in the common English language vernacular. In some dialects ain't is also used as a contraction of "do not", "does not", and "did not". The usage of ain't is a perennial subject of controversy in English. Widely used by many people, and found in most dictionaries, its use is often considered by prescriptionists to be informal, nonstandard, or improper.
Ain't has several antecedents in English, corresponding to the various forms of to be not and to have not that ain't contracts. It is a slight adaptation of 'is not', 'am not', 'are not' and 'have not'. The development of ain't for to be not and to have not is a diachronic coincidence; in other words, they were independent developments at different times.
Contractions of to be not
Amn't as a contraction of am not is known from 1618. As the "mn" combination of two nasal consonants is disfavoured by many English speakers, the "m" of amn't began to be elided, reflected in writing with the new form an't. Aren't as a contraction for are not first appeared in 1675. In non-rhotic dialects, aren't also began to be represented by an't.
An't (sometimes a'n't) arose from am not and are not almost simultaneously. An't first appears in print in the work of English Restoration playwrights. In 1695 an't was used as a contraction of "am not", in William Congreve's play Love for Love: "I can hear you farther off, I an't deaf". But as early as 1696 Sir John Vanbrugh uses an't to mean "are not" in The Relapse: "Hark thee shoemaker! these shoes an't ugly, but they don't fit me".
An't for is not may have developed independently from its use for am not and are not. Isn't was sometimes written as in't or en't, which could have changed into an't. An't for is not may also have filled a gap as an extension of the already-used conjugations for to be not. Jonathan Swift used an't to mean is not in Letter 19 of his Journal to Stella (1710–13): It an't my fault, 'tis Patrick's fault; pray now don't blame Presto.
An't with a long "a" sound began to be written as ain't, which first appears in writing in 1749. By the time ain't appeared, an't was already being used for am not, are not, and is not. An't and ain't coexisted as written forms well into the nineteenth century—Charles Dickens used the terms interchangeably, as in Chapter 13, Book the Second of Little Dorrit (1857): "I guessed it was you, Mr Pancks," said she, "for it's quite your regular night; ain't it? ... An't it gratifying, Mr Pancks, though; really?" In William Hickey's memoirs (1808–1810), ain't appears as a contraction of aren't; "thank God we're all alive, ain't we..."
Contractions of to have not
Han't or ha'n't, an early contraction for has not and have not, developed from the elision of the "s" of has not and the "v" of have not.
Much like an't, han't was sometimes pronounced with a long "a", yielding hain't. With H-dropping, the "h" of han't or hain't gradually disappeared in most dialects, and became ain't.
Ain't as a contraction for has not/have not first appeared in dictionaries in the 1830s, and appeared in 1819 in Niles' Weekly Register: Strike! Why I ain't got nobody here to strike.... Charles Dickens likewise used ain't to mean haven't in Chapter 28 of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844): "You ain't got nothing to cry for, bless you! He's righter than a trivet!"
Like with an't, han't and ain't were found together late into the nineteenth century, as in Chapter 12 of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend: "Well, have you finished?" asked the strange man. "No," said Riderhood, "I ain't"...."You sir! You han't said what you want of me."
During the nineteenth century, the propriety of ain't began to be disputed. Some writers[who?] did not know or pretended not to know what ain't was a contraction of, and its use was classified as a vulgarism—a term used by the lower classes. Perhaps partly as a reaction to this trend, the number of situations in which ain't was used began to expand; some speakers began to use ain't in place of is not, have not, and has not. Charles Dickens used ain't in the vernacular of many working- or middle-class characters in his works, such as the Cockney slang in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist: "...see what a pride they take in their profession, my dear. Ain't it beautiful?" Lewis Carroll may or may not have been tweaking purists in his 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass, when the character Tweedledee says to Alice, "If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic."
Ain't was used freely by educated speakers in some geographical areas as late as the turn of the twentieth century. For Victorian English novelists William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope the educated and upper classes in 19th century England could use ain't freely, but in familiar speech only. It continues to be in conversational use among well-educated speakers of various English dialects including Southern American English.
Conjugation lexical gaps for present tense "be"
The modern “proper” English conjugation of present tense "be" provides negative contracted forms for all person-number combinations except for first person singular - there is “he isn’t” but there is no “*I amn’t”. The missing “*amn‘t“ form can be technically called an accidental lexical gap, though in this case it seems that the gap is not "accidental" but instead "purposeful" as a social prejudice rejection of the lower class usage of "ain't" as default negative of present tense "be" or even "have".
Such a lack of such a contraction may be somewhat ameliorated by the pronoun contraction “I’m not”, with a some what emphasized “not“ - compare “you aren’t” vs. “you’re not”.
For an inverted verb construction, such as “isn’t he cute”, in the first person singular case there is no contraction (*”amn’t”) to invert. In this case “aren’t” functions as the general default giving “aren’t I cute” though “aren’t” is not enough of a default to serve in the non-inverted case in modern proper English - "*I aren't cute".
“Ain’t” has been shunned as low-class English (in part because of over usage), so much that it can’t take its natural place as the missing first person singular form and be inverted.
Regional usage and dialects
In the United Kingdom, ain't is generally used only by the working classes, such as those speaking the Cockney dialect, and is often considered improper speech by the middle and upper classes, in contrast to 19th century England where it was readily used in familiar speech by the educated and upper classes.
Ain't can be used in both speech and writing to catch attention and to give emphasis, as in "Ain't that a crying shame," or "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary gives an example from film critic Richard Schickel: "the wackiness of movies, once so deliciously amusing, ain't funny anymore."
It can also be used deliberately for what Oxford American Dictionary describes as "tongue-in-cheek" or "reverse snobbery". Star baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and later a popular announcer, once memorably said, "A lot of people who don't say ain't, ain't eatin'."
Although ain't is seldom found in formal writing, it is frequently used in more informal written settings, such as popular song lyrics.
Ain't is obligatory in some fixed phrases, such as "You ain't seen nothing yet".
Notable early examples
- "Ain't I a Woman?", 1851 speech by abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
- "If you want to know who we are", from The Mikado lyrics by W. S. Gilbert "We figure in lively paint: Our attitude's queer and quaint—You're wrong if you think it ain't, Oh!" (1885).
- "Say it ain't so, Joe!", reportedly said by a young baseball fan to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the fan learned about the Black Sox scandal involving throwing the 1919 World Series.
- "You ain't heard nothing yet!" spoken by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences.
- "It Ain't Necessarily So", song from Porgy and Bess (1935); music by George Gershwin, words by Ira Gershwin.
- "ain't", Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage (1995) pp. 60–64 online
- See, e.g.
- Cheshire, Jenny (2009). Variation in an English Dialect. Cambridge University Press. p. 53. ISBN 0-521-11715-1.
- "Amn't", Merriam-Webster online.
- "Aren't", Merriam-Webster online.
- The Journal to Stella by Jonathan Swift: Ch 2: Letters 11-20
- Alfred Spencer Memoirs of William Hickey (1749–1775) READ BOOKS, 2008
- Niles' weekly register—Google Books
- "Ain't", entry in Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, E. Ward Gilman, ed., (Merriam-Webster 1989) ISBN 0-87779-132-5
- Charles Dickens. "XLIII". Oliver Twist. Nalanda Digital Library. "Project Gutenberg"
- Elizabeth M. Knowles (1999). The Oxford dictionary of quotations. p.190. Oxford University Press
- Manfred Görlach (1999) English in nineteenth-century England: an introduction Cambridge University Press, 1999
- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2003) p,. 27