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In the idiom "If it ain't ... it don't exist.", why is "don't" used instead of "doesn't"?

I'm thinking the intentional error might serve to draw the attention of the listener to the word "don't"/"doesn't", and thus make it more emphatic. I've noticed that when spoken, the word "don't" is stressed.

Is my assumption correct?

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I presume that the ain't and don't are both intended to put the statement in a "folk wisdom" register. –  Bradd Szonye Feb 21 at 22:40
    
"Ain't" on its own is not grammatically incorrect, though, just slang. –  sashoalm Feb 21 at 22:43
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@satuon It's not slang, it's merely non-standard, as is 3dsg don't. They're both at home ('grammatically correct') in this register. –  StoneyB Feb 21 at 22:52
    
"It don't exist" is grammatically correct? Shouldn't the verb agree with the pronoun? –  sashoalm Feb 21 at 22:54
    
It don’t is ungrammatical in formal English, but it's perfectly acceptable (and grammatical) in the folk dialect that proverbs like this are imitating. –  Bradd Szonye Feb 22 at 0:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Consider also: politics ain't beanbag, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, and probably many others that I can't think of at the moment. Adages that claim to offer no-nonsense straight-talk are often couched in folksy dialect, which presumably makes them sound more authentic. Non-standard English like ain’t or it don’t is acceptable and grammatical in such dialects.

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"Ain't" on its own is not grammatically incorrect, just slang. I was asking about the "don't" part, specifically. –  sashoalm Feb 21 at 22:44
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Probably because doesn't would sound inappropriately formal after ain't. –  phenry Feb 21 at 22:47
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@satuon, don’t is no more grammatically incorrect than ain’t is. They are both forms that are perfectly fine in some registers of some variants of English, and not allowed in other registers and variants of English. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 at 22:50
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@JanusBahsJacquet How so? "It don't exists" is not grammatically correct, I think. It's either "It doesn't exist" or "They don't exist". The verb should agree with the pronoun, right? –  sashoalm Feb 21 at 22:52
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@satuon, of course it is. There are many people who use it as their natural form in colloquial, informal registers. The exact same is true of ain’t. You wouldn’t use either in formal language, nor in writing (unless quoting speech or affecting an informal, colloquial register), and there are whole dialects and certainly idiolects where neither is ever used. I, for example, would never say ain’t in any context (outside of fixed expressions), always isn’t. That makes it ungrammatical in my idiolect; not in English as a whole. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 21 at 22:55

In Tom Brown's Schooldays, the word don't is used instead of doesn't. e.g.. 'it don't go there' As these were public school boys I wonder if that was standard at the time instead of 'it doesn't go there.'

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Nah. It was never "standard". Such usages in TBS simply indicate that the speaker isn't particularly well educated, and/or is speaking in a highly informal/relaxed context. –  FumbleFingers Jul 28 at 15:25

Much in line with my expectations, these are the figures I got from Google Books...

"if it ain't broke [don't fix it]" 223,000 hits
"if it ain't written [down, it didn't happen]" 183 hits (plus 45 more for ain't in writing)

It's also worth mentioning that there seem to be more different ways of following the (highlighted) search term in those 183 results than in all the 223,000 above it. Also that the "broke" version goes back to at least the 1890s, whereas the "written" version seems to have first appeared in the 1970s.

Taking that into account, I would say the "reason" for the "ungrammaticality" in OP's version is mainly because that's how the original was framed. And since that original had already lasted for the best part of a century, the latter-day aphorist was simply taking the advice of his chosen model.


I will admit I don't recall ever hearing OP's specific follow-on (it don't exist). Mostly I know the version I put above as a "general observation", and the unadorned "If it ain't in writing, it just ain't" when warning people about the (lack of) value in verbal agreements. But obviously the rationale for ungrammatically using don't exist in OP's case is even more that it's just an echo of the original.

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