Why Do People Say 'Ain't'?

Ain't is still frowned upon, so why do people keep using it? Neal Whitman explains.

Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #462

The fact that aint can function as a negated form of be, have, or do has led some to propose (5) that in African American English, aint is better analyzed as a single, all-purpose negator, for singular or plural; for first, second, or third person; for present tense and past. However, that 1994 study, by Tracey Weldon, rebuts this claim. In Weldon’s speech samples, when aint is a negation for be, it’s always in the present tense. It never fills in for wasnt or werent. The same goes for when aint is a negation for have. In Weldon’s samples, and in my corpus searches and personal experience, it always fills in for hasnt or havent, never for hadnt. For do, Weldon notes, aint always functions as a past tense, never a present tense, like the aint see in the Brer Rabbit example. For the present tense, she says, dont is virtually always the preferred contraction in African American English.

However, that was 20 years ago, when the World Wide Web was only a few years old, before Google, and before the easy availability of online language corpora. These days, if you search in the Corpus of Historical American English for examples of aint followed by the plain form of a verb, you can see that its frequency jumps in the 2000s with a handful of verbs: know, want, and say. The same search in the Corpus of Contemporary American English brings in almost 200 examples from between 1990 and 2012, like this one from 2008: “I love her, but I ain't wanna get married.” In that example, aint is replacing dont.

Weldon’s study was also published years before the advent of social media, which has vastly increased the amount of informal and spoken English that gets put into searchable text. Today, you can search through archived tweets from Twitter’s seven years of existence, and find example after example of aint in place of dont, like these:

Oh thanks but I ain't want a carmel apple. I want a red candy apple! 

 I ain't know what to do

I ain't see my boyfriend until AT LEAST next week

Whatever the reason for the widespread disapproval of aint, its bad reputation is a fact, so I don’t recommend it for formal writing, except for well-known sayings such as It aint over till its over, You aint seen nothin yet, and Say it aint so. Still, the gradual creeping of aint through the negated English auxiliary verbs is fascinating to observe.

This piece was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com


1.   Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman. 2009. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. p. 49.

2.   Barbara M. H. Strang. (1970). A History of English. p.151. Cited in Walker 2005.

3.   James A. Walker. 2005  The aint constraint: Not-contraction in early African American English. Language Variation and Change, 17 (2005), 1–17.

4.   Tracey Weldon. (1994). Variability in negation in African American Vernacular English. Language Variation and Change 6:359–397.

5.   Charles E. DeBose. (1994). A note on ain’t vs. didn’t negation in African American Vernacular. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 9:127–130. Cited in Walker 2005.


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