Monday, August 25, 2014

Ain't and the Grammar Police

I grew up in a home where use of standard English was not a mere suggestion. My parents gritted their teeth through our very early years of learning the language and  seemed to have a basic understanding that it takes most children at the very least two to two-and-a -half years to get verb conjugations straight, particularly with irregular verbs. They were patient as we mastered the art of using adverbs. I don't think they ever thought our miscues were cute, though. It surprised me, then, when looking at  Matthew's baby book, to read my mother's annotation that at the age of two, he substituted the word  Thursday for thirsty, as in, "I'm Thursday; I need a drink of water."  It would have seemed to me that my mother would have been embarrassed to admit that either of us mangled the English language to such a degree.   One thing I found in my own  baby book was, inside a plastic sleeve,  a crumpled paper than had been flattened for many years, but still retained lines from its original crumpling. On the page -- just a piece of computer paper -- was scrawled the word ain't  over and overprobably twenty or so times on each side,  in my five-year-old printing. I  had been sent to time out in my parents' library for some offense I don't even remember, and apparently didn't think it was fair, so I expressed my outrage by writing the contraband word as many times as I could fit on the single sheet of paper. I crumpled the paper, put it in the wastebasket, and thought that was the end of the matter. It certainly didn't occur to me that either of my parents would think it was funny or would bother saving it.

When we were in real school, we were expected to speak the language properly. The nuns at our Catholic school we attended for kindergarten weren't all that patient with poor grammar and incorrect syntax, either, but Matthew and I were the least of their problems in that regard. We had barbarian Nazis at home correcting our spoken English. We would have know for years by that time not to say, "I seen him" or "She don't know how to tie her shoes."  The cardinal sin in our home, however, was the use of the word   ain't. Matthew and I certainly knew by kindergarten age that if we were going to say ain't, we might just as well drop an f bomb with it. the penalty probably wouldn't have been any worse.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Matthew nor I was ever caught saying ain't  audibly at home.  It's not that there was no temptation.  If a parent says enough times not to say something, it must be a really fun thing to say, right? I  can remember when we'd be in our car seats or boosters on a road trip, if we didn't have to go to the bathroom, we might not get out on a really quick gas pit stop. As soon as both parents were out of the car and the doors closed, we'd start saying "the A word": "You ain't gettin' any of my Skittles, Matthew," I'd say to him even though I new I'd get tired of them before I'd finished half the bag.

"No, you ain't gonna be able to finish 'em. And if you ain't gonna eat 'em all and they don't get et by you,  they ain't gonna go to waste," he would respond.

We seemed to get that certain other syntactical  errors flowed naturally with the use of ain't.  "She ain't  bringin'  us no Dr. Pepper, Matthew, because she don't like us consumin' caffeine," I would tell my brother as our mother approached the car with two styrofoam cupped-drinks, likely bearing root beer or orange soda.

"She ain't really got no idea iffen caffeine don't be good for us or not,"  was his reply.We had the dialect down every bit as well as if we had been brought up by parents who spoke it fluently as a first dialect. The second either parent opened the car door, we reverted to standard English.

Once I didn't want to invite a particular classmate to a birthday party, so I told my mom the girl frequently said ain't. My mother  said that the little girl did not have parents who spoke English at home, and it was not her fault that she used the word  ain't;  she refused to remove the girl's name from the list of invitees.  Years later, I am so incredibly grateful to my mother for taking the stance that she did. I would have trouble living with myself even fourteen years later if the little immigrant child had been excluded from my birthday party primarily on the basis of my snobbishness attempting to masquerade itself as a member of the grammar police. 

 Another time, when I was in second grade,  I had a playmate over -- the child of  English-only speaking parents: a dentist dad   and stay-at-home mom who was a credentialed teacher. The little girl said  "ain't"  loudly in our family room as we were playing. I braced myself for the worst. My mom came into the room where we were playing and explained, using a much softer and kinder voice than she would have used had I been the one to utter what was considered  an epithet in our home, that ain't was not a proper English word, and it was not good for the child to be in the habit of saying it. The little girl responded with, "Lady, how I talk English ain't none of your damn business." The play date ended abruptly as my mother drove the child home. The child never came to our house again, nor I to hers. We moved about five months later so it didn't have to turn into some sort of  family feud in the tiny rural Catholic community.

Now that we are older, my brother and I have seen my dad's true colors. We know that he swears with greater fluency than does the average sailor or truck driver.  Yet still he does not use the word ain't, nor does he commit other errors in English language usage. For example, the pundit on Fox and friends isn't "fucking  stupid;" he or she is "fuckingly stupid."  My father's philosophy is that if one must curse, one should do so using the most standard English possible.

My brother and  I, over the past few weeks, have picked up on a few questionable pronunciations and clearly slang terms that seem to make my dad's skin crawl. My mom doesn't appear to care so much, as she believes  that she did her job in teaching us to speak standard English, and if we're stupid enough to forget it now that it matters, it's our problem. I do think she finds my dad's reaction funny, though.

One of my dad's pet peeves is the pronunciation of the silent t in the word often.  It's become standard though not preferred usage through repeated misuse. If you take any word in the English language and get enough people to pronounce it incorrectly, the incorrect pronunciation will eventually make it into one or more dictionaries as an acceptable if secondary pronunciation.  I've taken up saying often as often as possible, and to articulate the t each time I say it.  It drives my dad bonkers, though, as I've told you all before, it's the shortest trip he's ever taken.

My brother has picked up the slang term iffen. I think it just means if, but it sounds so much more like a drunken Isla Vista resident trying to sound like a cool college kid. My brother also mispronounces the word mischievous.  He's taken to pronouncing it mis CHEE vious. You have to add that i to create an extra  syllable to make your mispronunciation really stand out.  My brother finds more ways of working it into a conversation than I ever could.

As much as I'd love to throw a couple of A-bombs into casual discourse, I do worry about my parents' blood  pressure. I do not wish to be responsible for the untimely death  or incapacitation of either of them.

So iffen you ain't too busy and gots some time on yours hands, read my's blog and respond in you's own best standard English. I does reply to most of my comments. My brother, I wish I could say he do, but he don't often [the t is pronounced] do that sorts of things.


  1. What a hilarious post! I can be rather anal retentive about grammar myself, but coming from the South, I ain't too concerned about ain't. The little girl who dropped the A bomb in your house sounds like a girl after my own heart.

    1. Knotty, I can't see you as a milirtary brat saying what that little girl did, but then, my mom was a military brat, and I'm told she had quite a mouth on her.

  2. I was raised by northerners. Regarding pronunciation; between both of my grandparents, my Nana has the poorer grasp on correct pronunciation. It's this weird northern thing; words that end in er are pronounced with a short a. Cah for car, as an example. Also, she tends to pronounce words that end in a short a with er. IdeaR for idea, Beccer, instead of Becca. My uncle jokes mercilessly about it. She doesn't understand what she's doing wrong. It's toned down quite a bit since they moved to Pennsylvania 39 years ago, but it's still very noticeable to people who are not used to speaking with her. She, however, knows that ain't is not a word, and has never used it in conversation. That was my grandfather's "thing" too. I don't remember ever using ain't myself, except if I was quoting someone else (like LBJ "... but, there AIN'T no daylight in Vietnam!") My grandfather would say that ain't isn't a word.

    I have a friend who is still learning proper English (she's French) and she recently started using ain't in her e-mail to me. I've let it go, just because I know she picked it up from pop culture and she'd probably be embarrassed.

    In my own experience with my own pronunciation, I generally speak as I was taught until I know better. I had no idea that the t in often is silent because around here everyone pronounces the t. Pennsylvania has a diverse array of accents and many different pronunciations, especially with the strong German and Dutch influence among other influences, such as (but not limited to) poorer education. Mispronunciation tends to be related to economic situations. Also, Philadelphia has a nice blend from NY and NJ which are both very pronounced on their own.

    1. ** Poorer educated parents spawn children who are ( sometimes, in some situations) less likely to advance their education, who are not necessarily exact in their grammar and pronunciation. Pennsylvania is not as bad as other states in this regard (Maine, comes to mind), but in the mid state, especially, you see more small businesses and businesses that are passed along from parent to child. We're basically average, but life in mid-state PA is completely different than Pittsburgh and Philly. For obvious reasons.

    2. *** Not that there is anything wrong with small family businesses or that those who run them are uneducated. I thought, I should add that. There isn't anything wrong with that career choice. I didn't intend to sound so bigoted in my comment. I digress...

    3. The only thing I might have against small business owners in your area is what I have against state prison employees here. often the prison employees were mediocre-to-poor students who happened to enroll in the corectional officers' academy at the right time. The only moral standard would have been that they have no criminal record as an adult. Many of them did have records as minors. They're overpaid 9in my opinion) here, so they, especially if both spouses work, are able to afford homes in the nicest parts of most towns (except not in SB). they don't take their kids' education very seriously, because they're doing just fine and they never turned in homework or paid attention in high school, so why should their kids have to?

      They've been lucky in that their union has been able to cut great deals with the last several governors that have heavily contributed to California's incredible debt.

      As I see it, there are right now rtoughly twenty-five applicants for their academy for every candidate who is admitted. when you have THAT many people applying for one position, you could probably afford to pay a little less to the person who gets the job. if you cut the salary by a third, you'd still probably have eighteen aapplicants for every actual space in the academy. We need to compensate these people well enough that they have an incentive to do their jobs honestly and not to accept bribes or be involved in other forms of corruption, or the system would soon be even worse than it is. Charlie Manson might have been allowed to escape a long time ago if a correctional offercers' jobs did ot pay so well that it was worth keeping. Furthermore, I acknowledge the hazardouos nature of their jobs, and their compensation should refelct that and contain hazaed pay. At the same time, the educational level required for their jobs is a high school diploma or a GED.

      We had some employees living within the boundaries of my old school district. They chose the commmunity necause it was a safe community for the most part and possibly because of the reputation of the educational system. yet for the most part, they did nothing to facilitate their children;s taking advantage of a better-than-average school system. My mother said that teachers hated conferencing with most correctional officers or their spouses. It would be lsomething like, "Your son refuses to learn his multiplication tables. He has the basic reading skills that should allow him to succeed, but his comprehension lags. while we can't rule out a learning disability at this point, there's no reason to suspect that there IS one. The child just needs to spend a little more time reading. He says that he uses his Wii system for at least four hours a day. could he maybe cut back his Wii time by an hour and devote th time to reading and devote half the time to reading and the other half to getting his other homework done, including working on memorizing his multiplicaytion tables?

      Anytime you have a system, whether it's businesses that are inherited or correctional officer jobs that kids and parents think will be passed on, that causes children and their parent not to value a free education, there is a problem.


    4. The mother just sits there and smiles while tlooking at her well-manicured nails. The correctional officer father pulls out his iphone. As me any multiplication problem,' he proudly tells the teacher, "and I can get the answer as fast as you can think of it." He continues. 'I didn't do good in school , either, and i know I'm making more money than you do. School is overrated. My kid will be just fine." The problem is that the economy cannot support the children of correctional officers as adults in the manner in which their parents are being supported. Tthey cannot all inherit the jobs.

      This attitude is not present in all correctional officers, obviously. Some are model citizens and exemplary parents. in my previous hometown, Such was the exception and not the norm.

      Incidentaly, I disn't mention this before, but the primary thug who assaulted me was the son of a correctional officer. i admit that the incident alone gives me a bias.

    5. The computer wouldn't allow me to place this reply directly beneath the comment.

      Regionaly vowel and /r/ pronunciations are different than classic misronunciations of words. I'm chared by regional accents, which will probably disappear in the next generatrion or two, with possibly the deep south holding out a bit longer. One reason for this that has been suggested is the lack of locally-produced television programming, and even radio programming to an extent. Almost everything is syndicated or nationally broadcast. it used to be that the national news anchors spoke the "Great Lakes" dialect of eastern Michigan, but everyone's local news was anchored by those who spoke the local dilect. Locally produced news programming is taking a backseat to network and cABLE NEWS PROGRAMMING, AND THE LOCAL NEWS OUTLETS ARE OFTEN HIRING THOSE WHO SPEK THE gREAT LAKES DIEALECT, WHICH FOR SOME REASON WAS CONSIDERD WHEN TELEVISION STARTED to be the "perfect' version of American English.

      It makes me a bit sad that regional dialects are probablyy going to disappear, and I'm glad they'll still exist in my lifetime.

      My mom was talking not too long ago to a professor at BYU hawaii who used to have his students do a survey, with each of then approaching ten native english speakers and asking them what they called certain objects and how they pronounced certain words. twenty-five years ago, he and the class could identify with 95% or greater accuracy from what region the test subject or his/her parents came. He says now it's little better than 65%. He thinks it's because of the homogenization of language due to the proliferation of national media.

    6. Oh Alexis.!The league of grammar Nazis is a proud organization.

      We all have our pet hates. I stress over people not differentiating "less" and "fewer" , loathe "gotten", "off of" and sympathise with you mum over "ain't". At girl's camp I know I was despised because if any girl came to me saying "can I lend your (whatever)" I made her stand and repeat ten times "May I please borrow....." I still shudder at " different to" but linguists say we have lost the battle on that one and it must be accepted Grrrrr. I think differently FROM them.

      My small state does not produce the Australian nasalation or the horrid rising inflection of the eastern Australian states. When we travel we are usually mistaken as English or Kiwi because we speak so nicely.

      I frequently correct even the text messages that come from my kids with there/their/they're or too/to errors. They claim they know the difference and it is just a typo.

      Nevertheless ,I proofread all of both my kid's uni assignments for grammar,spelling and punctuation. Recently my 29 yo daughter has had a major work project which she ran past me for "nit-picking".

      Nice to know that my anal qualities are appreciated.

  3. I was very entertained by this, so thank you. I always get a kick out of places that use the word "shoppe" instead of "shop". Although I think it is fuckingly stupid and unnecessary to spell it that way, it makes me want to pronounce the word so that is sounds like "shopie" which is actually more fun than saying the word "shop".