Merriam Webster Dictionary announced that “they” is its word of the year based on the number of times folks looked it up.

I grew up hearing the prohibition against using “ain’t” because that word isn’t in the dictionary, Merriam Webster or otherwise.

Let’s put those two points together.

My obnoxious auto-correct in Microsoft Word is underlining “ain’t” in red in deference to that old prohibition. That prohibition arose in the 19th century before which the contraction of “am not” moved from “an’t” to “ain’t” before descending into disrespectability.

The injunction against “ain’t” has produced an odd offspring. Lacking an acceptable contraction for “am not” gave rise to the syntactically ugly “aren’t I” as in “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” as Hillary Clinton is said to have complained, a usage which violates subject verb agreement. That sentence as a statement rather than a question produces “I aren’t ….”

Seriously ugly. But there is no “acceptable” alternative except the formal, uncontracted “Why am I not….?”

Proscribing “ain’t” because it was not in the dictionary assumed that dictionaries were the ultimate authority of correctness. In contemporary dictionaries, this prescriptive role can be found in usage notes in entries for which there is a divide between formal correctness, that is how the most educated users employ the language in the most serious or elevated circumstances, and the rest of us when we either knowingly, ignorantly, or carelessly disregards those standards. These dictionaries, like Merriam Webster, usually include a usage note describing how “ain’t” still lacks standing in formally correct writing or speech.

Having relegated “ain’t” to a usage note, Merriam Webster has now waded into the issue of “they” as the singular pronoun of choice for non-binary individuals. Regular readers of my columns perhaps remember I explored the “they” issue some time ago, and I will not repeat myself here although I reserve the right in the future to stroll down a side street to examine how the Quakers’ “thee” and “thou” figure into the conversation. Rather, the point now is that the editors of this dictionary declare in a usage note that forms of “they,” including “their” and “them” have been adopted “by individuals whose gender identity is nonbinary….” Thus, this dictionary provides a recognized authority’s descriptive validation of a usage that faces serious headwinds from the majority, cisgender individuals, who prefer to be referred to with gender specific singular pronouns “he” and “she.”

That brings us back to the “ain’t isn’t in the dictionary” prohibition. The lesson there is that in the conflict between a dictionary’s descriptive role, which records without value judgment the language people use, versus the prescriptive function, which stigmatizes deviations from formally correct usage, the final winner is uncertain.

“Ain’t” had been seen as a formally correct contraction, used by writers of all stripes, including such 19th century heavyweights as Lord Byron and George Elliot, until it became associated primarily with lower classes at a time when middle class strivers, who wanted to separate themselves from their social inferiors, cast the word into the usage dungeon.

And so “ain’t” still wallows in its dishonorable status although it continues to be used by the majority of English speakers in everyday situations. Because it is expressive, and its single syllable is metrically convenient, it appears often in song titles, such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Imagine the latter in its formally correct garb as “Am not Misbehaving.”

Nope. That is unimaginable.

Dictionaries can only react to, and then describe, linguistic changes such as in the case of “ain’t.” In that regard, the final determination of nonbinary “they” has yet to be written.

Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include three mysteries set in northern Michigan. Contact stevelew@charter.net.

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