A Russian requesting a free sample lesson from me asked me about the word “ain’t.” He also asked about its use in the phrase, “ain’t got.”
These are good questions. I wanted to share with the world the good answers I gave him in reply.
First, the simple part.
“Ain’t” is not a proper word.
There is no English word “ain’t.” There is no proper English that “ain’t” could serve as a contraction for. It is never good English, ever.
Those who use “ain’t” in ignorance, sound uneducated through no fault of their own.
Those who use “ain’t” on purpose, are intentionally sounding uneducated.
Now, for what it means.
1. Ain’t = Isn’t
2. Isn’t = Is Not
Isn’t is a contraction for is not.
(Contractions are a way to say two very common words faster, and easier, to save time and trouble. They are common in all but the most formal spoken English, such as speeches by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.)
An old saying from the 1960’s relating to the retirement of a famous baseball player was, “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” which had the benefit of rhyming. Therefore, the same phrase in proper English grammar would read, “Say it is not so, Joe” or more naturally sounding, “Say it isn’t so, Joe.”
This was a plea for Joe DiMaggio to say he was not retiring, when he indeed was retiring after a spectacular, but not endlessly long, career as a professional baseball player.
So, let’s get “got” out of the way.
“Got” is the past tense of “To Have.”
“I have a cup of coffee, right now.”
“I got a cup of coffee two minutes ago.”
Originally, it was as simple as that. However…
“Ain’t Got” Is Wrong – Twice
In American popular culture, and as a result, in many songs, television programs, and movies, “ain’t got” has been used to mean the following:
“I do not have ___”
In other words, “ain’t” is very wrong – “ain’t” is a substitute (and a bad one, but never mind that) for “is not.” Here, the proper negative verb is do not (i.e. don’t). “Ain’t” has no place at all!
In addition, this phrase is used for the present tense, which means that “got” is completely wrong. “Have” is the present of “to have.” “Got” is the past of “to have.” It is simply wrong.
So, this phrase has two things wrong with it.
When you hear “ain’t got,” think: “don’t have.” That’s what it means, even if the way it is said is bad, bad English.
These are phrases that are good for non-native speakers to know, and bad to actually use.
Thank you for reading. I really, really hope this clears up the issue for many non-native speakers.
Bonus: “I Ain’t Got No Satisfaction”
The problem with this phrase is that it has three (!) errors.
The first two are the errors we have already seen. The third is the no part.
Remember, “ain’t” is a negative. So, this reads like:
“I do not have no satisfaction.”
That is not what the phrase is meant to convey. Rather, the message is this:
“I do not have any satisfaction.”
The singer’s problem is not having satisfaction (or happiness). He has no satisfaction.
So, using “ain’t got no satisfaction” is using a double negative which, taken literally, would imply the singer does have satisfaction… which is not his message.
So, there you have it. Three errors in one short sentence.
Amazing, isn’t it…