The Dilemma Continues: Ain’t That the Truth!

When the Third Edition of “Webster’s New International Dictionary” came out in 1961,  it did not take long for a great controversy to arise about the manner in which the word “ain’t” was treated.

The Second Edition (or W2)  had been the reliable and trustworthy source for teachers,  editors,  writers, and all manner of researchers for several decades.  It was “prescriptive” to a considerable degree in its lexicographic philosophy, part of a long tradition beginning with Samuel Johnson’s famous eighteenth-century tome.  W2 handled the entry on “ain’t” quite briefly and simply:  “Contraction of ‘are not,’ used indiscriminately also for ‘am not, is not, has not, and have not.’  Cf. HAIN’T.  Dial. and Illit.”

As the understandings of the English language and of the patterns of human language began to change and as the “spoken language” became to be regarded as the language,  W3 also changed to become much more of a “descriptive” lexicon.  The entry on “ain’t” in the 1961 edition was much more extensive than in W2.  The common use of “ain’t” as a substitute for “am not” was described in this way:  “though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.”  The other uses for “ain’t”  with a form of the “to be” verb were not labelled.  The substitutions of “ain’t” for the verb forms from “to have” with “not” were labelled as Substandard.

Whole books were in that era written about the controversy in usage labels and usage judgments.  Very recently (recommended for your further study)  a thorough study appeared in an article by David Skinner in the July/August issue of Humanities.

Doubtless in part because of the controversy and because of stances taken by “Grammar Grandma In North Carolina” in Dear Abby’s recent column,  “ain’t” is now pretty well dismissed from the realm of acceptable speech–and vehemently so from written English.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged Edition, was first copyrighted in 1966.  Here is the entry on “ain’t” in my 1968 College Edition:  “Nonstandard in U.S. except in some dialects.  Informal in Brit. am not.  Nonstandard. are not, is not, have not, or has not. [And here follows an obviously quite “prescriptive” usage note]:   — Usage.   AIN’T is so traditionally and widely recognized as a nonstandard form that it should be shunned by all who prefer to avoid being considered illiterate.  AIN’T occurs occasionally in the informal speech of some educated users, esp. in self-conscious,  folksy, humorous contexts (Ain’t it the truth! She ain’t what she used to be!) but it is completely unacceptable in formal writing and speech.”

In the next great tradition of dictionary making came The American Heritage Dictionary,  most distinctive perhaps for its etymologies (a full lexicon of Indo-European root words is a special feature),  its illustrative material,  and its usage notes.   A distinguished “Usage Panel, ” somewhat like voters in a political campaign poll,   gave their collective opinion on a great number of usage questions.

An example of an extensive usage note can be found, for “ain’t,”  in my American Heritage College Dictionary,  Third Edition.  (In any of its uses to substitute for contractions of “to be” and “to have” forms with “not,”  it is labelled Non-Standard):   “The use of ain’t as a contraction of am not, is not, has not and have not has a long history,  but ain’t has by now acquired such a stigma that it is now beyond any possibility of rehabilitation.  However, it is used by educated speakers, for example,  when they want to strike a jocular or popular note, as in fixed expressions such as Say it ain’t so. ”

There is quite a bit more that can and perhaps ought to be said and discussed on this subject,  such as the place of ain’t in some marginalized American cultures.   But let’s save that for another time.

Your interest and comments are always welcome!



9 Responses to “The Dilemma Continues: Ain’t That the Truth!”

  1. Tammy Stephens Says:

    I am surprised. I didn’t know “ain’t” went back that far. Thanks for the history, I enjoyed it!

  2. Lolly Says:


    A word about writing for the Web, though: It is preferred to use italics (rather than underscoring) for published works. (An underlined phrase in the Web format appears to be a link. How disappointing not to be able to click through and read more!)

  3. Forest Crump Says:

    Poor little Ain’t.
    It ain’t his fault, he didn’t asked to be so used and so maligned at the same time.

  4. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    Let’s get all the scholars together and declare “ain’t” to be proper and formal usage.

  5. Tammy Stephens Says:

    Too cute!


  6. Frank B Maness,Jr. Says:

    I ain’t sure we can get all the scholars together on anything!

  7. Macky Myers Says:

    Shame on all of you! If you “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” what else would you call it? Fats Waller would be proud!

  8. Gregory Phillips Says:

    Ain’t nothing but a thang.

  9. Raymond Rundus Says:

    A couple of quick replies:
    Lolly is absolutely right about underlining vs. italics. For some reason, yet unbeknownst to me, my italics would not take, and I resorted for a time to underlining, which is a godawful way of treating decent, innocent publications. I’m back in “standard” gear now.
    And to Macky Myers: check on my next posting and likely my last for the nonce about “ain’t.” I don’t know why (perhaps creeping dementia?) I did not think of “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. Anyway, here’s a fourth example of what I was trying to illustrate.


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