116: Using 'ain't'

When is (and when isn't) 'ain't' appropriate?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 116th episode.

Today's topic originally came from the Pronuncian forums. User _kinhow_ commented:

I know it's informal, but I think it's important for us to know when it's used and how it's pronounced. I'm talking about the contraction ain't. I hear it a lot in movies and in some music.

User Mikola agreed that ain't would be a good podcast topic. So, here it is. What is ain't, and how do we use it?

First, yes, ain't is a word; it has meaning that native speakers understand and generally agree on. Some people may not like that it's a word, and may not like hearing it in conversation, but that does not take it out of our vocabulary.

In order to effectively use ain't, you have to be able to pronounce it correctly. Otherwise you'll just sound funny. When I'm saying ain't out of context (for teaching purposes), I'm adding more of a t sound to the end of it than you would hear in conversation. The word ain't is pronounced as a long a, then an n sound, then either a t sound, or more commonly, a glottal stop. A glottal stop is the sound in the word uh-oh and has been covered in previous podcasts that I'll link to from this show's transcripts.

I'll say ain't with a t sound, then a glottal stop.

ain't (t sound)
ain't (g.s.)

Listen to ain't in a couple of sentences and notice that I'm using the glottal stop instead of the t sound:

I ain't going out there!
I ain't gonna ride in that.

If you say the final t sound you are adding formality to a very informal word; it just doesn't work very well. I'll say those sentences with a nice clear t sound.

I ain't going out there!
I ain't gonna ride in that.

Informality must come naturally. If you can't sound comfortable doing it, it is better to leave your speech a little more formal. That would mean not using ain't!

Of course, like most uses of the t sound allophones such as the glottal stop, if the word is given extreme emphasis, the t sound can pop back into the word. Here are those sentences with added emphasis.

I AIN'T going out there!
I AIN'T gonna ride in that.

So, how do we use ain't? The word ain't is an extremely informal replacement of contractions created by the auxiliary verb be + not. In informal conversation only, you can use ain't to emphasize a negative. Here is an example.

Perhaps it's snowing and really, really cold outside and your friend wants to go for a walk. You could say, "I ain't going out there!" to mean that there is no possible way you will go outside in the cold and snow.

Or maybe you're offered a ride in a really old car that looks terribly unsafe. There is no way you would get into that car. You could say, "I ain't gonna ride in that." Notice the second informal contraction gonna. "I ain't gonna ride in that."

Both of these examples are replacing I'm not with I ain't, but it can be used with any noun or pronoun plus be+not. Here are examples:

You're not going or you aren't going becomes you ain't going
He's not going or he isn't going becomes he ain't going
It's not going or it isn't going becomes it ain't going

I hope you get the idea.

If you use ain't inappropriately out of context or in a situation that is anything but extremely informal or for extreme emphasis, people may think you have bad grammar.

It's this notion of bad grammar associated with the word ain't within Standard English that sometimes creates tension among differing dialects of English. I feel the need to cover it here because movies and music were part of the original forum question.

The topic gets touchy here because it gets tied to racial subjects connected to African American English.

I'm going to use the word dialect to refer to African American English, since the differences in speech are based both on pronunciation and vocabulary.

According to Word. The Online Journal on African American English and some websites they link to in their blog as references to African American English, ain't is used as a common replacement contraction for haven't and didn't.

This means that when speaking African American English, ain't has more uses than I mentioned above. It's also important to realize that those uses are considered grammatically correct and acceptable within the dialect. For your listening comprehension, I want to mention that the use of ain't does not necessarily carry the same meaning of emphasis on the negation of the verb that I explained a bit ago. It's a more general-use contraction.

You will come across speech in movies and music that also use that word ain't, aren't speaking African American English, and don't necessarily mean to add emphasis. In those cases, dialect is also coming into play. The incidences of this usage are far too broad to explain in one single podcast. Hopefully what I've talked about so far will cover most of the cases you will come across for hearing ain't.

Using ain't is a personal choice you need to make. You can be safe and never use it, or you can play with it within the context of Standard English, informally and very casually.

I'm going to say one last thing on the ain't topic; don't use it in emails or on forums. In written language, it's very difficult to express the nuance you may intend, and it generally does not reflect well on yourself if you are writing too informally to people who may not know you. This actually goes for all informal contractions in English.

Okay, let's change the subject. Last week I said I'd tell you about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I'll admit, I downloaded this audiobook from Audible because it takes place in rural Wisconsin. While I'm not from the exact location of this story, I grew up pretty close by, outside of a town that nobody outside of the state knows of. In fact, most people in the state have never heard of it either.

I was very pleased when listening to the story and the narrator had a perfect pronunciation of Wisconsin words. For instance, the word Chequamegon. The Chequamegon National Forest is a huge forest in northern Wisconsin that I spent many youthful days playing in. Chequamegon is spelled c-h-e-q-u-a-m-e-g-o-n. It is not phonetic by any standard we have, yet everyone from there knows the pronunciation, even if not the spelling. One entire part of the story takes place in the Chequamegon.

I also like how the author found ways to bring a local beer called Leinenkugels into the story. For people who drink it, Leinenkugels gets shortened to Leinies. The author of The story of Edger Sawtelle, David Wroblewski, obviously knew this fact.

The story is about a boy named Edgar who cannot talk. He grows up on his parents farm where they raise a special breed of dog. The story is based on Shakespear's very notorious play, Hamlet. So, if you're aware of the plot of Hamlet, you can already guess the themes of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It is very interesting how the author parallels the major plot points of Hamlet with a story set in a totally different time and place.

One last thing about this story; it is very, very long: over 21 hours long. If you have a long daily commute, this book will last you quite a few days.

You can get a free audio copy of The story of Edgar Sawtelle by visiting www.audiblepodcast.com/prouncian and signing up for a free 14-day trial. If you like the service, keep it and keep getting more audiobooks. Or you can grab any book that sounds good to you and then cancel your subscription. Audible is a safe, credible company that I truly feel you can trust. So, try it out if you like.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.