Ain't Ain't Good English, Is it?

May 30, 1993

If you've been hearing a distant grinding noise lately, it could be coming from cultural purists gnashing their teeth over the news about "ain't."

The 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has just been published, and the slang contraction "ain't" is included. That's not the news, though. "Ain't" is hardly a stranger to modern dictionaries.

What's noteworthy about this edition is that the usual caveat about "ain't" being substandard English -- even for American English -- has been dropped by the dictionary's editors.

Can't you hear the purists now? "First the hula hoop, then MTV, now this! What's our culture coming to? What were these editors thinking?"

Well, it seems obvious what the editors were thinking. They finally collided with the unavoidable conclusion that "ain't" is a perfectly good word that does the job where other words fall flat.

Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer showed he understands this when he said of a legislative battle on the floor of the House of Representatives, "It ain't done yet." So did rapper L.L. Cool J when he titled a recent song, "Ain't No Stoppin' This." And what was it Cliff the mailman said on the last episode of "Cheers,"

explaining why he and his pal Norm have never budged from their favorite bar stools? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

According to Mark Twain, who used more than a few "ain'ts" in his work and thereby helped create a distinctly American literary voice, "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning."

Twain wasn't referring specifically to "ain't," but he might as well have been. If you want your words to strike lightning, there are times when only that once-taboo contraction will do. Politicians, rappers and now dictionary editors know there's nothing substandard about "ain't."

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