It's in the dictionary, but does that mean it's OK to use?
Today's topic is “ain't” and a few other troublesome contractions.
To quote the famous opening lines of the first-ever talking picture, The Jazz Singer: “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet!”
You may have been chided—or at least corrected—for using this slang contraction, but do you know how “ain't” came to be and when it’s OK to use it?
Review of Contractions
You’ll recall that when two words are pushed together and at least one letter is removed and replaced by an apostrophe, a contraction is formed.
“You would” or “you had” becomes “you’d.” “You’d love this carrot cake, Bunny.” Or, “You’d better stand up now, Neil.”
“She is” or “she has” becomes “she’s.” “She’s very happy for you, Joy.” Or, “She’s been walking all over you, Matt.”
What Should You Say Instead of 'Ain’t'?
The Random House Dictionary points out that although “ain’t” is considered improper or slang, it actually arose as an alternative to two other contractions—one clunky and one just plain wrong grammatically.
Let’s assume someone says, “I’m doing all right, ain’t I?” Well, what is “ain’t I” replacing? It might be, “am I not?”
“I’m doing all right, am I not?” That’s correct but a little awkward—and, in today’s casual conversation, perhaps unduly proper. Flip that around and shorten it into a contraction, and it’s even clunkier: “I’m doing all right, amn’t I?”
A worse alternative is “aren’t I?” That suggests the construction, “I are doing all right, aren't I?”
Random House, in its usage section, offers a better option: “I’m doing all right, isn’t that so?” Simpler yet, try this: “Am I doing all right?” And remember, “all right” is two words, “all”–with two l’s--and “right.”
It Ain’t Right to Say 'Ain’t'
“Ain’t” is not used exclusively in the first person singular, of course.
Let’s conjugate it:
He, she or it ain’t
Wow. That’s really versatile. It’s a shame it’s usually not acceptable, ain’t it? Ooh, I'm cringing.
When Is 'Ain't' Acceptable?
About the only times “ain't” is acceptable are in dialogue or when you want to convey a colloquial tone. For example, in the very first example I gave you from “The Jazz Singer”—“You ain't heard nothin' yet—” “ain't” gives an earthy tone to the title character, Jakie Rabinowitz.
In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion says, “Ain’t it the truth, Ain’t it the truth?!” Here, “ain’t” is used for comedic effect.
In grade school, one might have heard a smart-alecky classmate say, “I ain’t gonna use ‘ain’t’ anymore, ’cuz ‘ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary.” Well, actually it is; but you need to be very careful about how you use it.
Maybe the best-remembered “ain’t” was part of a misquote. In the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, in which members of the Chicago White Sox helped throw the World Series, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson left the courthouse and a young fan asked, "It ain't true, is it, Joe?"
A newspaper reporter apparently juiced it up a bit, and “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” became part of sports lore–even finding its way into last year’s vice presidential debate.
The Quick and Dirty Tip
As with many coinages, the rule here is one of context. In business, scholarly, and other formal writings, omit “ain’t,” unless it’s used in direct quotation, and never go around saying it in general conversation unless it's part of a joke or well-known saying. In dialogue or to convey a vernacular tone in prose, use it with discretion. Treat it like spicy mustard; don’t make a whole sandwich from it.
Is It 'Could’ve' or 'Could Of'?
While we’re on the subject of contractions, let’s take a look at what has happened to the constructions “would have,” “could have,” and “should have.” People have heard the perfectly correct “could’ve”—and heard it as “could of.”
There’s the helping verb “could,” but then if you spell it “could of,” it has no main verb to help. So, in theory, it’s helping a preposition, “of.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. It's “could have.”
In previous episodes, we’ve talked about how language evolves and how some stricter constructions have become tacitly acceptable through widespread use. Well, not for this one. It's a hard-and-fast rule.
To keep decent English alive, make a little extra effort and enunciate: “would have,” “could have,” and “should have.”
“Well,” you might say, “I’ve meant to improve my diction.”
Yeah, yeah -- woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Should You Say You 'Could Care Less' or 'Couldn’t Care Less'?
Now let’s imagine that someone tells you something that makes no difference to you.
“Glenn and Dale said they won’t be joining us on our trip to the valley.”
To express your absolute indifference, you reply, “I could care less.”
Oops. Actually, you couldn’t care—could not—care less. You’re at zero on the care-o-meter, and there are no negative numbers on that scale.
If you say you could care less, you are saying implicitly that you do care, even if it’s just a little bit, a tad, a jot, an iota—dare we say, a smidge.
A Bonus Tip!
In the cases of “could of” and “I could care less,” remember the old standby: Think about the meaning of what you’re saying. If a construction doesn’t really make sense, it’s probably not what you mean to convey.