Spellchecking ain’t easy

A customer wrote to us recently with the observation that our English spellchecker doesn’t recognize the word ain’t, a fact which struck this customer as a tad, well, old-fashioned.  Pedantic, perhaps.  The words “uptight” and “shortsighted” might have been used.  Yikes!  I’ve been accused of a lot of things, but…


First, let’s admit that this is not a mistake.  Yes, we deliberately excluded ain’t.  You can tell, because we made sure to get just the right set of words to suggest in its place (isn’t, am not, aren’t) despite these words being pretty far away from ain’t in edit distance.  You could say the same about gonna and wanna, which are also excluded, but for which we suggest going to and want to, respectively.


This is one of those tough calls we encounter when building a spellchecker.  As a linguist, I have no inherent objection to the word “ain’t” on any moral, intellectual, or even aesthetic grounds.  It’s a part of my own spoken idiolect, and I tend to use it unselfconsciously in informal contexts.  Ain’t no reason not to, usually.  But clearly, it is still universally regarded as nonstandard, and people naturally want to avoid using it in formal writing.  That goes for me, too--I doubt I’d want to use it when writing to the boss, even when the boss is a pretty informal kind of guy (Hi Bill!).  So from that point of view, flagging this word as an error is a good thing for customers, a lot of whom are using MS Office at work.


On the other hand, people also have lots of reasons to want to write ain’t--to be deliberately jocular, say, or to sound folksy, or just because it’s natural.  Or because they’re a Jane Austen character.  And in those cases, they’d prefer to spell it right--there’s only one correct way to spell ain’t, after all, and your fingers can stumble on it just as easily as any other word.  By not recognizing ain’t, we sure ain’t helping folks in those situations.  And that goes for gonna and wanna, too.


So what do you think?  Should there be a red squiggle under ain’t, or not?


-- James Lyle, Tester

Comments (13)

  1. Charles says:

    Perhaps a per-document setting for formal vs. informal?

  2. Patrick says:

    "ain’t" is not a spelling misstake. The word, as informal as it is, is spelled correctly. "ain’t" can be a grammatical error, though. It should be flagged as a grammar misstake of "informal" and the user can then ignore it once, or permanently ignore it.

    I suppose you could argue what sort of grammatical misstake it is… but it definitely ain’t no spelling misstake.

  3. Sophie says:

    I agree with you, you’re a linguist, so you don’t have to give any prescriptive information. And we musn’t forget what Henri Frei wrote "Les fautes d’aujourd’hui sont le français de demain" ("the mistakes of today are the french of tomorrow"), which is also available for english !

    Nevertheless, you could maybe add a linguistic indication such as "familiar".



  4. Actually, could you remove "manger"?  It’s only ever appropriate after "away in a", and there are countless job openings out there advertised for a "Senior Manger".

  5. Stephen Jones says:

    How on earth can you mark a perfectly correct word as a spelling mistake or typo. If you wish to mark it as a mistake in linguistic register so be it(presuming Word’s inbuilt grammar has such a distinction; I turn it off so I wouldn’t know).

    If people want a nanny they can advertise for one on Craig’s List. MS Word is advertised as a Word Processor, which is not the same thing.

  6. SM says:

    Good article.  I would think a green "grammar checking" squiggle would be more appropriate than a red "spell checking" squiggle.

    But on the other hand, I’m not sure I understand the complaints. If someone objects to the omission, they can just as easily click "add to dictionary."

  7. Simon says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with most of the comments so far, and opt for keeping it a spelling mistake.  It’s much easier to add it to the dictionary (it’s on the right click menu) if you do use it, than it is to remove it if you don’t!

  8. I’m mildly surprised that someone complained about the state of things.  As a writer, I enjoy pushing the boundaries of how language is used, and that includes judicious use of the notoriously formally incorrect “ain’t”.  

    When the spell helper flag’s ain’t, I simply look at it and think, "Yes, I know that’s not officially a ‘real’ word, even though everyone knows what it means; but if I’m using it, I have my reasons."  

    For me, the red-squiggle can be taken as a note-to-self that I’m playing a bit out of bounds, which happens frequently when I ‘customize’ or ‘extend’ words, or if I am writing in a realm that is particularly jargon (which is usually).  ‘Jargony’ is not a real word either, but I am not angry with the spell helper for flagging it for me, even though I know pretty much everyone will understand it.  

    So, I happen to find the reminder welcome, not troublesome.  If a red-squiggle under "ain’t" or "jargony" or whatever really bothers me that much, right-click -> “Add to dictionary” will sufficiently re-orient my world.

    Good fortune,

    – Icarus can’t spell…

  9. John says:

    If your excluding ain’t on the basis that you are assuming we only write formal letters, perhaps you should bring back clippy. "I see you’ve used the word ain’t, would you like some help writing an informal letter to your boss?

    Presumptions are never a good idea.

  10. Cameron says:

    Perhaps this calls for the addition of a new type of squiggly underline. A orangy-yellow "style" underline. Keep spellchecker to identify misspelled words, grammar checker to identify invalid grammar, and include a new style checker that looks for slang, informal style, etc.

    That way, you could have a context menu or button for "Writing style" that you could switch to formal, friendly, narrative, etc. (or create custom writing styles).

    There are many cases where it’d be handy if the word processor could catch you out on informal style when writing formal letters, for example using first person rather than third person.

  11. Carrie says:

    I can see what you are saying as no it is not a word you would normally use in formal writing. However when you pair it with wanna and gonna, it is like comparing apples to oranges as ain't was actually made an official word and wanna or gonna was not! If you go to http://www.merriam-webster.com as we all know the Webster dictionary is the most common and probably the most correct dictionary, and search the 3 words, you will discover that wanna and gonna do not exist in the dictionary! However if you in turn  search for ain't you will find that it does exist!

  12. Joanne says:

    There are some of us who are quite literate but extremely spelling dysfunctional.  If you MUST insist on censoring me, I would prefer to have you do so under the grammatical warning instead of the spelling warning.  I really hate going out to Google to check the spelling of a word you have decided that is an improper word.  Well, now I know why.  The Censor has arrived!  (I thought it was just a poor product, not deliberate!)

Skip to main content