Ain’t that how everybody talks

I enjoyed this exchange on the use of ain’t in Annie Proulx’s story ‘The Mud Below’, from her fine collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. Diamond, a young rodeo bullrider, is visiting his home and talking with Pearl, his ten-year-old-brother:

Diamond fried two eggs in butter and ate them out of the pan, fried two more. He looked for coffee but there was only the jar of instant dust.

“I’m going to get a buckle like yours when I’m eighteen,” Pearl said. “And I’m not going to get bucked off because I’ll hold on with the grip of death. Like this.” And he made a white-knuckled fist.

“This ain’t a terrific buckle. I hope you get a good one.”

“I’m going to tell Momma you said ‘ain’t.’”

“For Christ sake, that’s how everybody talks. Except for one old booger steer roper. I could curl your hair. And I ain’t foolin. You want an egg?”

“I hate eggs. They aren’t good for you. Ain’t good for you. How does the old booger talk?”

In a few words (Ain’t good for you) we see a child spontaneously adopt a previously unavailable piece of grammar. Ain’t isn’t part of my dialect: Hiberno-English amn’t, with which it shares an ancestor, covers a lot of that ground. But I ain’t averse to it, and I use it occasionally.

Incidentally, I’m using a new version of Microsoft Word, and it red-lined ain’t in the draft of this post. Having added the word to my previous dictionary years ago, I’d forgotten that the unfortunate stigma against it extends even there, and probably helps perpetuate it.



19 Responses to Ain’t that how everybody talks

  1. Love it! I’m going to have to look for Annie Proulx’s stories, too.

  2. kcecelia says:

    That’s a gorgeous Proulx story excerpt. Now I want to reread the story. Ain’t to me seems to me to be a natural part of speech only for certain regions, or in certain social strata. I know no one who uses ain’t even colloquially unless they are using it in jest. I think it has a strong stigma associated to it as an indicator of a lack of education or intelligence. I just don’t hear it, or read it, anywhere. For me, it’s in this story as a way for Proulx to indicate to the original reader, who was a 1998 New Yorker reader, that the people in the story are uneducated, lower class, rural.

  3. kcecelia says:

    Sorry about the repeat “to me” in my comment above. I should be asleep. It’s 4 a.m. in Northern California.

  4. Stan says:

    Sharon: That was my first outing with her, and it was marvellous. The last story in the book is ‘Brokeback Mountain’, familiar to many from the film.

    Katherine: You’re up late! Jocular uses of ain’t are what I’m most familiar with too. The stigma attached to it is regrettable; people too readily treat non-standard usages as an excuse to judge the intellectual or moral character of others. I can’t say how accurate Proulx’s use of dialect is, but it felt authentic and was a joy to read.

  5. Vinetta Bell says:

    Please permit me to give a slightly different response to your post, Stan. The use of ain’t is not typically used by racial minorities who must code switch during professional interactions in order to be accepted by the dominant culture. Of course, popular culture has made the register less rigid than the norm in the past. I also think of the USA response to Mark Twain’s deliberate use of dialect in his novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first published in England), when the dominant culture cringed at the assumed negative stereotype of Americans that use of language conveyed. (The N word was not the initial complaint about this book.) Twain probably enjoyed the controversy until he became bitter in his latter days. If I were teaching the story you quoted in your post, I would note, in addition to its beautiful dialogue and mature character development, that people with limited formal education might (but not necessarily) also contract more words, especially during informal conversation. However, the inclusion of the word, ain’t, wouldn’t be my primary focus during literary analysis, unless I and/or my students wanted to focus upon language as an expression of conformity to societal expectations, as Twain used Huck’s acceptance of but not necessarily belief in a religious threat of Heaven or Hell to parallel Huck’s limited freedom from society in contrast to Huck’s character development as the ideal boy who was mostly free from societal constraints. Thanks for letting me respond to your meaningful post, this morning, Stan, about an interesting and enjoyable piece of literature. I enjoyed reading the comments as well.
    Vinetta Bell (a Southern Black female with Native American and White racial heritage who reads research and writes for a living)

  6. adamf2011 says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used ain’t, not because I think it’s bad English or would make me sound uneducated, but because it’s not a part of the language that I grew up with, it doesn’t belong to any of the “linguistic communities” I feel a part of; I think I would feel as if I were pretending to be something I’m not, similar to some white kid trying to use african-american english — or some patrician politician dropping “ain’t” in a speech to a working class audience.

    Watcha, or even Watch’ (=”What are you”) is another story, however, as is didja….

  7. I remember reading a magazine article years ago that compared Microsoft Word’s grammar checker with that of another word processor that probably doesn’t exist anymore.

    A point the article made in favour of Microsoft’s checker was that Word generally phrased its suggestions cautiously — e.g. “Consider doing X” — whereas the competitor went for a more dogmatic “Do X”.

  8. Stan says:

    Vinetta: Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful contribution. I don’t associate ain’t with any particular ethnic groups, but I know it’s non-standard and colloquial and seems reviled out of all proportion by certain people (even though, or perhaps partly because, it is “flourishing in American English”, as Merriam-Webster reports).

    If I were teaching Proulx’s story and discussing its language, I probably wouldn’t focus much on ain’t either; there are all sorts of other interesting dialectal features worth attending to. But this passage stuck out because the characters explicitly discussed the word, and because I’d recently written about its cousin amn’t – which although standard in Irish English is also sometimes criticised as ignorant or illiterate.

    Adam: My situation is similar, in that ain’t isn’t in my dialect or that of most people I speak with ordinarily. But I use it sometimes in a light-hearted fashion, for example while briefly affecting another accent or an ironically folksy tone for no other reason than the fun of it. And, of course, in songs.

    Adrian: Ugh, I hate that kind of dogma in usage advice, especially since it’s so often paired with misinformation. We may be grateful for small mercies.

    • kcecelia says:

      Stan: I’ve been enjoying reading the intelligent comments left on your piece since I left mine in the wee hours of this morning. I wanted to say I agree with what both Adam and Vinetta said. (I even thought of Twain in relationship to Proulx in this context, but was too sleepy to take it further.) What strikes me most about your piece, and your comments, is the idea that ain’t is in common use in the U.S. In the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m not hearing it, even as a use in joking speech. I’m actually surprised that Merriam Webster claims ain’t is “flourishing in American English.” I’m wondering where. Note: I think one reason ain’t is so noticeably absent is the disdain directed at it in the American public education system of the 50s/60s/70s in the US. It was an easy target in the sense that there was no complexity in relationship to its total censure in grammar schools. It was somehow a simple way to divide groups, as Proulx has done with its use in her story.

  9. adamf2011 says:

    Stan: Thinking about your post, what’s interesting is that Proulx here shows a child perhaps not so much spontaneously as self-consciously deciding to conform to a social/linguistic convention. (“They aren’t good for you. [corrects himself] Ain’t good for you.”) Pearl wants to be accepted by his brother; perhaps this is Pearl being socialized into a certain community.

  10. Roger says:

    Re stigma arising from /ain’t/: when the F-word is quite the thing in polite company, or if not there, then certainly in broadcasting, then, harrumph, what stigma ?
    Or if there is any, so much the better for effect.

  11. marc leavitt says:


    Some people think that words like “ain’t”
    Bear elements of moral taint;
    I use an “ain’t” to stress a point
    When I think times are out of joint,
    Then code-shift back to “I am not”;
    I always do it on the spot.

  12. Ray Girvan says:

    Exactly. There are times when only “ain’t” will do.

    Mrs G: “X seems to think we’re buying him lunch.”
    Me: “Well, we ain’t.”

  13. Stan says:

    Katherine: I guess it’s more common in some writing genres and speech communities than others. I checked several usage dictionaries and language corpora and all agree it’s in common contemporary use. The controversy you mention probably owed something to the publication of Webster’s Third, whose entry on ain’t focused much of the hostility that dictionary received. There’s a book about this called The Story of Ain’t, but I haven’t read it.

    Adam: Agreed – I interpreted the switch much the same way. (By spontaneously I meant “impromptu”, not “automatically”, in case that wasn’t clear. Perhaps not the best choice of word.)

    Roger: Several commentators mention the use of ain’t for effect, be it folksy, emphatic, jocular or whatever. It seems to be used a lot this way by people who wouldn’t use it in their normal expression.

    Subject of so much complaint,
    To others sounding merely quaint;
    Formality being no constraint,
    We find a place for every ain’t.

    Ray: Yes indeed. “We aren’t” and “We’re not” would be more or less as pithy and direct, but “We ain’t” has a unique tone.

  14. John Cowan says:

    Customer: “Is y’all got any eggs?”

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

    Customer (indignantly) “I ain’t axt you is you ain’t, I axt you is you is. Is you?”

  15. dainichi says:

    As John Cowan’s comment shows, ain’t seems to be an alternative for not only a negation of forms of be, but also sometimes hasn’t and didn’t.

    Or maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe it’s that some dialects use (forms of) “be” where the standard dialect would use other auxiliaries. The “is”s in John Cowan’s comment would be examples of that.

    Does anybody have insights about this handy?

    • Stan says:

      Merriam-Webster specifies the following uses:

      1: am not : are not : is not
      2: have not : has not
      3: do not : does not : did not —used in some varieties of Black English

      Wikipedia has brief discussion of these, with examples and references. I’m sure there are good scholarly papers on it that supply greater grammatical detail, but I don’t presently have time to search.

  16. […] common but notoriously non-standard word ain’t occurs frequently in song lyrics and is often singled out for criticism, be it light-heartedly […]

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