‘Little Women’ and the Art of Breaking Grammatical Rules

A few weeks ago I wrote on the grand old rule about not ending sentences with prepositions, which is, quite simply, a long-lived hoax we’d best relegate to history. In that light, I’d like to dismantle the powerful but hopeless idea that language is something to be judged rather than observed. It can be hard to process, within the bounds of our lifetimes, the randomness of our take on what “proper” language is.

I’m thinking of this now as I finally read “Little Women,” which everybody but me seems to have read and which seems to generate another movie version every 10 minutes.

Of course I always notice how characters talk, and one thing that sticks out about the March sisters is how often these ladies use “ain’t,” in ways that their modern New England equivalents would not.

They are literate and status-conscious people, and yet especially in moments of excitement, they pop off with lines like Amy’s, “You’ll be sorry for this, Jo March, see if you ain’t!” Note also that Amy is especially prim and proper among the four. There are lots of “don’t’s” in place of “doesn’t’s,” as well — even in calmer moments. Meg to Laurie at a ball says, “Take care my skirt don’t trip you up.”

With ain’t and don’t, the March girls often seem to turn on a dime from “The Age of Innocence” to “The Grapes of Wrath.” You hear it in British literature of the same period. In Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” Lord Nidderdale — note, Lord; these are not Dickensian urchins — often tosses off lines like “But then she don’t want me, and I ain’t quite sure that I want her.”

Ain’t had a different status for many English speakers in the 19th century than it does for us today. In 1961 there was a media kerfuffle when Webster’s Third New International Dictionary deigned to even include ain’t. Life magazine and The New Yorker condemned the choice. The Times called the volume “disastrous.” In The Atlantic, Wilson Follett called it “a very great calamity.” But to Meg March and Lord Nidderdale, “ain’t” was about as ordinary in casual speech as it is now to say “the funnest party I went to” or to use sunk in place of sank.

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