The Grammarphobia Blog

It ain’t necessarily so

Q: When my daughter says “aren’t I,” I correct her and tell her that it’s “ain’t I.” After all, “ain’t” and “won’t” have been in the language for the same length of time. Neither is a true contraction, so objecting to one but not the other makes no sense to me.

A: What can I say? I agree that “ain’t” (originally “an’t” when first seen in print in the late 1600s) was once just as dignified and honorable as “can’t” and “I’m.”

But “ain’t” began to drift away from respectability by the early 1700s, when it came to be a contraction not only of “am not” and “are not” (perfectly logical) but also of “is not.” By the 1800s, it was used for “have not” and “has not,” too.

When its parentage came into question in the 19th century, “ain’t” lost prestige. I think this is a shame, as my husband and I point out in Origins of the Specious, a book about language myths that’s coming out in May.

If you’re interested in reading more about “ain’t” now, I wrote a blog item some time ago about how this contraction ended up in the doghouse. (And it is in the doghouse now, so I wouldn’t encourage your daughter to use it, except in fun!)

As for “won’t,” it’s much, much older than “ain’t,” going back to Anglo-Saxon days. It was a “legitimate” contraction in Old English, when “will” was woll. Our “won’t” began life as a contraction of woll not.

Harebrained grammarians had forgotten this by the 18th century, when they began condemning “won’t” as illegitimate. Ain’t that a shame!

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