Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

School has started up back in the U.S., which means that my Facebook feed is full of quizzes like “do you have better grammar than this fruit bat?”, and not-terribly-funny e-cards about the Oxford comma. These are the bane of September, and I’ve come to treat them like I treat the swelter of July: if I lay down on the living room floor and whimper quietly to myself for long enough, it’ll eventually be winter and I can be a human being again.

This September, however, yielded up a special treat: my FuhBook timeline was full of links to an article titled “A Step-By-Step Proof That Happiness Depends Partly On Grammar.” So many BookFaced people were sharing this article, complete with comments like “YES, THIS!”, that I peeled myself off the rug to see what all the fuss was about.

The article is an intro and apology (in the Greek sense) for a book written by N.M. Gwynne, M.A. (Oxon). The initial-loving Gwynne is a retired British businessman-cum-schoolmarm, so I think I’m safe in calling him a priggish eccentric. His article begins with a proof[1]–“yes, a proof that really is valid!” he trumpets, likely while waving his arms about, wearings his trousers as a jacket, and frightening pigeons and children–that good grammar leads to a good life. Students of Logic, start your engines:

1. We can’t think without words.

2. If we don’t use words correctly, then we can’t possibly think correctly.

3. If we can’t think correctly, we can’t make good decisions.

4. If we can’t make good decisions, we’re going to royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us.

5. If we royally screw up our lives and the lives of people around us, then we won’t be happy.

If you pulled up short somewhere between 1 and 2, congratulations: you have more sense than Gwynne’s publisher, who thought that a book based on this proof was a good idea (and no, it’s not part of their humor line).

Knopf’s press sheet for Gwynne’s book begins with, “The greatest danger to our way of life is the decline of grammar.” I read this and returned, face-down, to the living room rug. Not war, not poverty, not obesity, not hunger, not sloth, not ADHD, not corporate welfare, not social welfare, not an ineffectual government, not a giant asteroid, not $2 Chicken McNuggets. The decline of grammar. I put a pillow over my head for good measure.

The insistence that “bad grammar”–by which Gwynne and plenty others really mean “usages I don’t like”–will eventually lead to anarchy makes me want to burn shit down, man. Not only is it a pathetic attempt at fearmongering on the most inane scale ever, but history proves otherwise. It is possible for “bad usages” to thrive in ignominy, lexical bastards, without doing any damage at all to English.

“Ain’t” is a perfect example of this. No one’s quite sure where “ain’t” came from–some etymologists link it to the contraction “amn’t” for “am not,” and some to “han’t” for “have not,” and we know its earliest form was “an’t” for “are not” and “am not”–but it was certainly in vogue during the 17th century, when, according to some, Charles II of England decided to make it A Thing. Its origins are murky because it was primarily spoken: its earliest uses are in plays and dialogue from the early 1600s, including the line “these shoes a’n’t ugly,” uttered by a character sublimely named Lord Foppington. God bless those Restoration dramatists.

But by the end of the Restoration, contractions became verba non grata. They were “the deplorable Ignorance that for some Years hath reigned among our English Writers; the great Depravity of our Taste; and the continual Corruption of our Style” (Jonathan Swift, The Tatler). Thank the good Lord the 18th century had Jonathan Swift, a beacon of sense and taste and literary judgment (“an’t you an impudent lying slut”–Jonathan Swift, Journal to Stella).

The disparagement of “ain’t” went on from there. It was derided as an Americanism–by a guy we let sign the Declaration of Independence!–and branded as illogical (“A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated. What, then, is “ain’t”?“). If negative contractions in general were a blotch on English’s fair complexion, then “ain’t” was essentially the flesh-eating bacteria of the 19th and 20th centuries.

To prove how horrible “ain’t” was, popular novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray put it in the mouths of despicable, inelegant people–thereby perpetuating its use. It began showing up in other places: fixed constructions like “ain’t I” and “things ain’t what they used to be”; in letters and correspondence, where it was a mark of a close relationship; and in reporting and fiction, when the author used it intentionally to “down-talk” into a lower, more working-class register. In short, as vulgar as it was, people kept using the damn thing.

Finally, John Opdycke, a usage maven of the early 20th century, took matters into his own hands. WAKE UP, SHEEPLE:





It was a strong statement, and though it took time, people submitted to Opdycke’s wisdoNOOOoooooooo–

Louis Jordon, you majestic troll, you.

Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby (1944)













“Ain’t” has been maligned for most of its existence, and yet a great dictionary notes, “although widely disapproved as nonstandard and more common in the habitual speech of the less educated, ain’t … is flourishing in American English.”

You know what else is flourishing in American English? The rest of American English. In spite of the wrong-headed “ain’t,” a word that just about no one likes but everyone uses, we’ve still managed to communicate with one another beautifully. In fact, it’s almost as if people are able to use “ain’t” and still think clearly, act rationally, do rightly, live happily, and otherwise verb adverbially in a generally positive way.

That’s what makes Gwynne’s proof so ridiculous. There are people in the world who speak beautifully, whose powers of rhetoric and usage are keen, and yet who are nonetheless horrible people who wreak havoc in people’s lives. Yes, fine, Godwin’s Law invoked: I’m talking about Hitler. But we don’t even need to look that deep into the heart of grammatical darkness. We all know someone who is 100% orthodox in their grammatical opinions, spotless as a lamb, and whose life is still a shambles.

Let’s flip the proof: what about those of us with unhappy, messy lives? If my friend’s husband walks out on her, are you claiming, Gwynne, that it ultimately stems from the fact that she misuses “beg the question”? For I might take issue with that, Sir, and indeed claim you are a witless jackass.

I think English is pretty great, and I believe that she’s resilient and far more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. But more than that: I think that people (for the most part) are pretty great and I believe that they are more nuanced than Gwynne would have you think. Perhaps for some, good grammar leads to happiness. I am glad for those people. I am also glad for the people for whom personal happiness doesn’t depend a good goddamn on grammar. N. M. Gwynne, who by his own proof must be the happiest person on the planet, who is so confident in his happiness that he states “I am on the point of making history,” has made, to my count, at least two grammatical errors in the dedication of his book, and yet he doesn’t seem any worse off for it. That might be proof enough.


[1]. For your great patience, I now present to you the logical proof that I discovered written into the back cover of my 10th-grade Geometry text book, and which I thought was so amazing that I memorized it and nothing else in Geometry.

A Proof To Establish How Many Legs A Horse Has

  1. Horses have an even number of legs.
  2. They have two legs in back and forelegs in front.
  3. Two plus four is six.
  4. Six is an odd number of legs for a horse.
  5. The only number which is both odd and even is infinity.
  6. Therefore, horses have an infinite number of legs.


Filed under grammar, peeving and usage, the decline of English

52 responses to “Stigmatized and Still Alive: English in the Time of “Ain’t”

  1. I really enjoyed this! It was funny and well thought out. Saying that, I’m a complete language prescriptivist!

  2. Sounds like my calculating LOL

  3. Steve

    “if I lay down on the living room floor”
    If I LIE down.

    • Kory Stamper

      Ah, thanks for reminding me: lay for lie is another nonstandard use that’s been around since Chaucer was in short pants, has been (is, and will likely continue to be) extremely common, and hasn’t managed to destroy civilization yet.

      • Fabrizio

        Excuse me, but everyone can go back to classical literature to validate what is defined as a grammatical error today. Language evolves as does grammar.

        Let’s be fair, Gwynne’s grammatical errors, which you exposed, and if they do exist, might also be defended if he were to submit its usage from an esteemed author of the past.

        Regardless of the lay-lie rule you shifted tenses and that is qualified as a grammatical error.

        • Kory Stamper

          Gwynne’s errors–or rather, his “errors,” since I don’t necessarily think of them as errors–are utterly defensible. We don’t even have to appeal to the great authors of old: if you can understand what he’s saying, then, really, what’s the fuss? However, I suspect highly that if Gwynne caught me saying what he said, I’d get a proper scourging.

          No one’s arguing that language and usage don’t change: that’s sort of the general point ’round these parts. If I was too hard on Gwynne, it was only because his proof is laughable at best and the nastiest sort of pedantry at worst.

          Shifting tenses isn’t a grammatical error so much as it is indicative of sloppy writing, of which I am the undisputed champion.

        • “Excuse me, but everyone can go back to classical literature to validate what is defined as a grammatical error today. Language evolves as does grammar.”

          This raises an interesting question. If it wasn’t considered an error centuries ago, why should it be considered one today? What makes it an error now if it wasn’t back then?

          • fabrizio

            What makes you think that it wasn’t an error then? Shakespeare made quite a few, moreover grammar wasn’t as codified then.

            Are you implying that when an esteemed author makes a grammatical error; therefore, we should debunk the rule?

            • It wasn’t an error then because no one considered it an error then. The earliest recorded use of intransitive lay dates to about 1300, but no one seems to have been bothered by it until Baker started criticizing it in 1770.

              I’m not implying that if an esteemed author makes an error, then it isn’t an error. I’m implying that your argument that language evolves and thus that past usage is irrelevant is flawed. To simply assert that it is an error today and to discount all historical evidence is to efface the process by which it came to be called an error.

      • I like to say “lay IN the floor” and befuddle people all the more for being one with the carpet. 🙂

        • Fabrizio

          “It wasn’t an error then because no one considered it an error then.”

          I was referring to grammar in general. There were many grammatical constructions, such as the usage of lay/lie, that were countenanced two to five hundred years ago, but not today.

          Regarding Lie/lay: it seems that Baker was the only grammarian who discussed the subject, but contemporary reviewers had long condemned the confusion between the intransitive lie and transitive lay. I’m pretty sure there were quite a few people who were bothered by it. Keep in mind, the confusion concerns the intransitive lay used in the present tense.

          By the 1700’s, writers were compiling dictionaries and English grammars as English literacy grew. The overall effect was that Standard Written English evolved.
          I never declared that past usage is irrelevant. It’s only irrelevant if it’s a misusage today. “Ain’t” is a perfect example, for it was acceptable usage by both educated and uneducated speakers throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Today it’s stigmatized and denounced.

      • Kevin S.

        Ah, thanks for reminding me: the combined fallacies of appeal to authority (“Chaucer wrote it, so it must be OK”) and the “OED fallacy” (“someone used a word in certain way a few hundred years ago; therefore, that is a correct usage”). Add to that the Naturalistic Fallacy (deriving an “ought” from an “is”), and I’d say your grasp of logic is at least as suspect as Gwynne’s.

        Oh, and since appeal to authority is fair play for you, I’d say a Master’s from Oxford trumps a B.A. from a Seven Sisters college.

        As for your rousing defense of the improper use of “lay”, well, I imagine that civilization would also not collapse if we eliminated standardized spelling, or if we ceased using the apostrophe. Are you advocating those measures, as well? What the heck, right, so long as I can understand what you’re trying to say?

        And people such as you actually work for a dictionary! *shudders*

        As for the likes of “lay” and “lie”, “healthy” and “healthful”, “compose” and “comprise”…. The sad fact is that the trend in English usage is to eliminate all subtle distinctions and refinement, and to make our tongue a morass of fungible synonyms. There is a gulf, wider and deeper than Erebus, between those like you who think that that is a Good Thing, and those like me who think it is not. Your side clearly has won this battle, though, so by all means, be proud of your sloppy writing, and—I think we can safely invoke Gwynne here, despite your scorn—your sloppy thinking.

  4. My favorite “logical proof”, from my AP Psychology course in high school:

    Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
    A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
    Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.
    –R.S. Nickerson

  5. Deborah Knuth Klenck

    Speaking of your friend’s husband’s leaving reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon–it’s a wife at the door with her suitcases packed. Caption: “‘You could care less’? You mean ‘You couldn’t care less’! That kind of lousy grammar is why I’m leaving.”

  6. Yes, yes, yes to all of it!

    I hadn’t realised that Gwynne flaunts his MA (Oxon). This tells you something about the man.

    I too have an MA (Oxon). Here is how you get one:
    1) get a BA from Oxford (this involves some actual work)
    2) wait 3 or 4 years after graduating
    3) automatically qualify for an upgrade to an MA, without doing a damn thing other than staying alive
    4) pay a small fee, put on a silly gown and go and pick the thing up (or get it sent to you).

    The Oxford MA (likewise Cambridge and Dublin) is part scam, part pretext for a nice reunion with some old college friends. I enjoyed getting mine but I’d never dream of boasting that I have it! Anyone who does is a fraud.

    • Kory Stamper

      5) ????
      6) PROFIT

      (Over here on the Dumb Side of the Pond, an MA (Oxon) still sounds impressive, which I guess is the important thing, innit?)

  7. Anne

    “Gwynne and plenty others”
    “plenty others” or “plenty of others”?
    I have happily memorized your geometrical proof.

    • Kory Stamper

      “Plenty others,” though “plenty of others” is slightly less colloquial, I suppose. If our Dictionary of English Usage were online, I’d link to the article on “plenty” as an attributive adjective. Instead, I’ll just say that we’ve got an article on “plenty” as an attributive adjective.

  8. Although I am a bit of a sucker for good grammar, I would agree that the purpose of language is to communicate and so long as we can form coherent sentences the world will not fall into complete anarchy over the misuse of “me” and “I” (though this does bother me) but rather will fall to the mercy of $2 chicken nuggets instead.

  9. A 10 on the snark scale. Love it.

  10. How interesting to link word usage to the psychological and moralistic evaluation of social behavior, especially when strong class distinctions are associated with a judicious choice of words and grammar. Would a lawyer arguing his client’s important case to a judge say: “It ain’t so, your honor”?. Would a new Congressman haranguing the house say: We ain’t clear on the meaning of this proposal”? Has an American president ever used “ain’t”, as is “This ain’t war yet”? Das ist die Frage.

    • Kory Stamper

      Und hier ist deine Antwort: yes, American presidents have used “ain’t.” Gerald Ford, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and probably a Bush or two. (I haven’t checked the Bush archives.) It’s not just us idiot Americans: Sir Winston Churchill used “ain’t” as well. All of these uses are in newspapers, so they’re public communications and not private, and all are direct quotes.

  11. Of course the reason the book is called Gwynne’s Grammar is that it’s a grammar of Gwynnglish rather than English, as many have pointed out. Geoff Pullum calls Gwynne a preposterous old fraud, which nails it.

    My favorite ain’t dialogue:

    Customer in a general store: “Is y’all got any eggs?”

    Storekeeper (cautiously): “I ain’t said I ain’t.”

    Customer (indignant): “I ain’t axed you is you ain’t, I axed you is you is. Is you?”

  12. Excellent takedown, Kory.

    I think I’m going to write a book about how bad logical proofs lead to unhappiness (mine).

  13. He lost me at step two: I am distrustful of anyone who wants me to ‘think correctly.’ I would rather think well and creatively, so I will try to use the language accordingly.

    I have my own priggish eccentricities, but I’m not related.

  14. Wait. Bad logical proofs lead to happiness–witness our pleasure in Kory’s wit. Shakespeare would get a chuckle out of being made the go-to man for “proper usage.” Formal diction is often the cloak of Shakespeare’s knaves, whether they are noblemen or not. In King Lear, when Kent lampoons “proper” speech, and chooses to express his anger in brilliant colloquial curses, Cornwall puts him in stocks. Of course. The officious Oswald is happy, as are all the bad guys. The half-penny crowd understood the score…

  15. Kory Stamper

    Mad props to Michael V, who sent me a very nice note to report a typo that NONE OF YOU NOTICED (or, if you did, you were too nice/afraid of my wrath to say anything about it). It wasn’t conjunctions that were disparaged after the Restoration, but contractions. That one was a doozy even by my lax standards. Sorry! Carry on!

  16. Fabrizio

    Conjunctions, contractions does it really matter? “…If you can understand what he’s saying, then, really, what’s the fuss?”

    By the way, you never did get rid of that conjunction; it popped up in the paragraph below.

  17. “A contraction must surely retain some trace of the resolved form from which it is abbreviated.” I could point out the obvious thing this particular misguided rationale is missing, but I wo not belabor the subject.

    I can’t bring myself to read the article you’ve just done a wonderful job of shredding to bits, because if he starts sneering away about examples that prove his theory – you know, all those downtrodden jobless lowlifes who got to where they are today because of their failure to grasp good grammar – I will have to spend the rest of the weekend lying face-down on my own living room rug, and I’d rather not.

  18. lorac888890

    I still use the word ”ain’t” at times. We al have our preferences when it comes to English. Whether it’s the proper use or not.

  19. Roy

    I love the geometry proof–the beauty of it is that after I read it, I still knew how many legs a horse has, and I confess that I sometimes understand people who use “ain’t” much more readily than people who ask me to unravel their college essay sentences.

  20. I believe ain’t is widely used in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

  21. Alex Sander Santos

    Sorry to spoil your geometry and equine knowledge, but infinity ain’t odd or even, much less both at the same time. Infinity is not a number. It’s a mathematical entity that has some properties of numbers (but not “oddness” or “evenness”). And there are several, actually an infinite number of infinities! By the way, finite or infinite sets of the same size are called by a beautiful latin word: They are EQUINUMEROUS.

    • Kory Stamper

      I think it should be pretty clear fro my life choices that numbers and I do not get along. SORRY, INFINITY, for tarring you as odd and even at the same time. I hardly know you.

    • David L

      EQUINUMEROUS is a word of Latin derivation meaning “the same number [of sth, e.g. legs] as a horse has.” Ancient Rome being a horse-based culture, their vocabulary was heavily influenced by equine matters (Sapir-Whorf, you know).

  22. Alex Hurst

    The final proof was great. I’d love an infinitely-legged horse. (I imagine Odin would, too!)

  23. Pingback: Stigmatized and still alive: English in the time of “ain’t” | The Proof Angel

  24. This is kind of taking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the extreme, isn’t it? I salute your defense of English and your beautiful and hilarious use of it! Your final logical proof had me actually laughing out loud and reminded me of Douglas Adams’ style – I loved it.

  25. Yeah yeah all hail Kory for another rock ’em sock ’em ride of snark-laden insight and all that. But why is this post tagged with the label “underwear”?

    • Kory Stamper

      Haha, I just skimmed the post again and I have no idea. Maybe I intended to choose the “usage” tag and my sausage fingers struck again. Or maybe I’m going all Absurdist! It’d match the rest of me, then.

  26. nkh

    I laughed aloud at the horse legs proof.

  27. CGante

    Great, as usual!
    I especially liked the mathematical formula for counting a horse’s legs.
    It’s only a pity it does not work in German…
    Thus German horses do not have an infinite number of legs, but only twelve… – 2 at the front, 2 at the back, 2 left, 2 right and 1 at each ‘corner’.

  28. thesitrep

    Words are like football players, some are retired, some are in play, some are dead, some are yet to be born, and while they may have there ideal positions to play, no one cares it the kicker runs the ball in for a TD.

    By the way, people can and do think without the use of words, Bob Ross may have never been able to paint a cloud without uttering “happy little cloud” ad nauseum, but I can assure you that I have rebuilt a many engine near wordlessly, well OK, maybe a M^%$# F$^&%@ or three.

  29. Pingback: Language, Logic, and Correctness | Arrant Pedantry

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  31. I really enjoyed the horse leg proof! Had a good laugh

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