Evidential "ain't" on the hustings

« previous post | next post »

At a rally a few weeks ago in Newport News, Obama criticized McCain's economic program, claiming that the average CEO would get a $700,000 tax break, and then added: "Not only is it not right, it ain't right." Apart from the obvious "just folks" implications of the register shift, the line exploits a subtle distinction in evidentiality that Tom Wasow pointed out to me some years ago, which I worked into a "Fresh Air" piece back in 2002:

A while ago my Stanford colleague Tom Wasow sent me an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that quoted a dean at a prestigious Eastern university: "Any junior scholar who pays attention to teaching at the expense of research ain't going to get tenure." That ain't was a nice touch: it made it clear that the dean's conclusion wasn't based on expert knowledge or some recent committee report — it was something that should be clear to anyone with an ounce of sense.

That's the message that ain't conveys in all those common expressions like "It ain't over till the fat lady sings" or "If it ain't broke don't fix it" –ain't tells you that you're dealing with a nitty-gritty verity that you don't need a college education to understand.

The interesting thing about this use of ain't is that it pops up in contexts where an educated speaker would be unlikely to use a run-of-the-mill nonstandard form like "He done it" or "They didn't get none." In fact you hear this evidential ain't a lot from political figures in speeches and interviews, and not just in idioms like "it ain't over till it's over" and "say it ain't so":

And so, kind of Psychology 101 ain't working. It's just not working. I understand the issues, I clearly see the problems, and I'm going to use the NIE to continue to rally the international community for the sake of peace. George W. Bush

I think, again, that we've got to do the best job we can of trying to facilitate some kind of an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians and getting back to Tenet and Mitchell. It ain't easy. It's one of the toughest, most difficult, impractical problems I've ever seen. Dick Cheney

Well, when a politician gets corporate contributions and then writes an earmark for that corporation, which is not competed or any other virtue that I know of, that's not illegal, either. OK? But it ain't right. John McCain

This ain’t your father’s Republican Party, by the way.  This is a different Republican Party. Joe Biden

It ain't gonna happen. Tony Snow 

My guess is that this usage accounts for the great majority of the occurrences of ain't that you see in print and other relatively formal contexts, outside of direct quotations of nonstandard speech. That may be one reason why the word is likely to remain in the penumbra of standard English, despite its phonological naturalness as a contraction. If ain't ever became respectable (as it nearly did in the nineteenth century), educated speakers would no longer be able to use it to deliver themselves of a homey-sounding truth. 

Share:



11 Comments »

  1. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 1:54 am

    So could it be said that this use of “ain’t” is roughly equivalent to the standard usage form “just isn’t”?

  2. Andrew Shields said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 3:55 am

    I find myself using "ain't" with a double (or even triple) negative for an emphatic effect that is supposed to be funny:

    "There ain't nothing nobody can do about it."

  3. Karen said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    Ah, triple negatives: proof that the "cancelling out" argument is bogus. I just got Roy Blount, Jr's new book (Alphabet Juice) and he says: "compare a) I'm not going. (b) I ain't going. Which of the two do you think is a lot more likely to be going?"

  4. Alan Gunn said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    Model-airplane pilots use the emphatic "ain't" to warn others when they lose control of a plane because of radio failure. The custom is to shout, "I ain't got it!" It's concise as well as emphatic.

  5. baylink said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

    Of course, it was originally a corruption of amn't, meaning that in these other contexts, it ain't correct.

  6. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    November 2, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

    Working out the semantics of triple negatives is tricky. Even if you leave aside the ambiguity deriving from the different meanings of double negation in formal and informal contexts, "There ain't nothing nobody can do about it" requires some careful reasoning to calculate its formal meaning:

    It is not the case that there doesn't exist any thing X such that there exists no person Y such that Y can do X about it.

    The first two negatives cancel out nicely, and we get:

    There exists some thing X such that there exists no person Y such that Y can do X about it.

    That is to say, there is at least one thing that nobody can do about it. This is quite different from the meaning of "There is nothing anybody can do about it."

    For example, if there's rain coming in the window, one logically consistent thing to do about it would be to make the clouds and the rain to instantly disappear; another would be to close the window. Given that the first thing is something that nobody can do, it is correct to state (in the formal register) "There isn't nothing nobody can do about the rain falling in the window," because causing the clouds and the rain to instantly disappear is, in fact, something that nobody can do about it, and causing the clouds and the rain to instantly disappear certainly isn't nothing.

    By contrast, it would be absurd to say, "There is nothing anybody can do about the rain falling in the window," if it is as easy as just walking over and closing the window.

    This utterly counterintuitive difference in meaning illustrates why I try to avoid double and especially triple negatives in logical statements in computer software: it is unnecessarily difficult for readers to be sure of their meaning, even when they have a single well-defined meaning, and the computer has no trouble understanding that meaning.

  7. K. said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 2:29 am

    "compare a) I'm not going. (b) I ain't going. Which of the two do you think is a lot more likely to be going?"

    Hm. As a native ain't user, I don't really notice any difference. Which speaker is supposed to be less likely to go?

  8. T.I. said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 4:55 am

    Another high-profile use of 'ain't' by Joe Biden can be seen in the following clip at around 4:48.

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/video/index.jhtml?videoId=127383&title=Finding-Memo

  9. Fran said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 9:33 am

    @Karen
    Ah, triple negatives: proof that the "cancelling out" argument is bogus. I just got Roy Blount, Jr's new book (Alphabet Juice) and he says: "compare a) I'm not going. (b) I ain't going. Which of the two do you think is a lot more likely to be going?"

    Those examples are single negatives, surely, so how do they relate to your first sentence?

    As for the question posed, I would interpret both as clearly stating they would not be going out. What is the answer meant to be, and why?

  10. Jair said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 1:28 pm

    The second sentence seems slightly more stubborn to me. If someone says "I'm not going", he might be persuaded otherwise. If he says "I ain't going", then he ain't going. Even more so if he says "I ain't going nowhere."

  11. Killer said,

    November 3, 2008 @ 4:11 pm

    "It's one of the toughest, most difficult, impractical problems I've ever seen. Dick Cheney"

    He meant — or said, and the transcription is wrong — "intractable," right?

    GN: Has to be one or the other, you'd figure. Nice get.

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment