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