What does "ain't" mean in "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it"?

11

3

This question is a follow up question of my previous question Meaning of "ain't" in: "...we ain't know what it meant"

According to the Oxford Dictionary, ain't is used for isn't in the following sentence,

if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

But substituting isn't doesn't make sense,

if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it

User CarSmack indicated in his comment that broke is used for broken.

Please explain in detail what is going on. Why is broken replaced by broke?

user31782

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation: 1 693

BTW, it's usually best to wait 24 hours before accepting an answer, even if you get a good one right away. For more information, see here.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-01-15T21:27:07.787

See also this post on ELU.

– None – 2015-01-16T01:13:20.713

Answers

25

Posted: A kind note to the community who chose to edit my spellings of the word nonstandard to non-standard... Nonstandard is the way I spell this word. More importantly, it is spelled this way in Collins, American Heritage, and the Unabridged M-W. The form non-standard is not found in any of these three American dictionaries. In other words: If it ain't broke, don't "fix" it!


The answer proper:

'Broken' is the past participle for 'to break'. It is being used as an adjective in

If it isn't broken, don't fix it.

'Broke' is a nonstandard past participle for 'to break'. Reference. That is, it is considered to be nonstandard from the point of view of 'standard English'.

To avoid confusion, let's just call 'broke' colloquial for 'broken'.

Since ain't can also be considered colloquial, it makes perfect sense to find them together in the sentence

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Thus, ain't does mean isn't here.

Example
As an example usage, in the "old days" of the cathode ray TV and before cable or satellite TV service, one had to adjust the rabbit ears antenna to get good reception on the TV (pronounced TV in this example).

Caution: nonstandard/regional language ahead:

Now suppose them rabbit ears broke? Well you're gonna use an aluminium fishing poll and duck tape to rig a new antenna. Now the TV works good again. Your wife don't like it, and she wants to buy new antennas. But since the television is working fine with the antenna you made, you say "Martha Mae, if it ain't broke, don't be trying to fix it. We can use the money on catfish bait."

However, one dictionary calls 'broke' an archaic past participle of 'to break'. If that is the case, then at one time it was not considered nonstandard. I have to check the OED for further details on this.

user6951

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation:

Could you give some references. – user31782 – 2015-01-15T14:06:21.483

By the way what does this line mean: "Now suppose them(the!?) rabbit ears broke?"? – user31782 – 2015-01-15T14:37:38.850

2That whole example tried to refer to poor white folk, speaking their kind of English including pronunciation of TV on the first syllable. So 'them' means 'them there' or 'those'. The nonstandard *Your wife don't like it* is also used on purpose in this example. So is the reference to duck tape and catfish bait, all staples in the poor white peoples life. – None – 2015-01-15T14:40:39.733

shouldn't it be "Suppose those rabbit ear antenna *are broke(n)". What does this mean: "Suppose them there rabbit ear antenna broke"? – user31782 – 2015-01-15T15:12:24.533

You say "ain't" 'can be considered colloquial', but (given the context of this site) it would be better to say that it is colloquial. In normal/formal usage, "ain't" would be considered incorrect, and "isn't" should be used instead. It persists here because the saying in question is idiomatic. – MrTheWalrus – 2015-01-15T15:26:00.780

1

With 'suppose' you use the past tense form (broke) because it refers to a present hypothetical situation So, Suppose them rabbit ears broke means Suppose that/those rabbit ear antenna broke, where broke is the past tense of break.

– None – 2015-01-15T15:27:58.337

4@MrTheWalrus Normal according to who? I was unaware that this site prefers one dialect of English over others. I teach ESL. I advise students what is considered normal in the dialect of "Standard English," as well as what is considered normal in other dialects. The "idiom" persists also because people talk that way. See my example, where I've deliberately altered the words of the 'folksy' idiom. – None – 2015-01-15T15:40:01.073

@CarSmack You're correct that it would more accurate to say 'standard' rather than 'normal'. The usage is "often highly stigmatized, and [...] generally considered non-standard by dictionaries and style guides except when used for rhetorical effect." (per Wikipedia). That seems like something readers of the answer should be aware of. – MrTheWalrus – 2015-01-15T16:14:49.033

1@CarSmack Yes, I was convinced. 'Normal' is ambiguous, and it is therefore better to say 'standard'. There's no need to be rude about it. – MrTheWalrus – 2015-01-15T16:38:23.410

Is this line, Suppose, I am the king wrong? How do we make the distinction between present hypothetical and past hypothetical. If I want to say that I wish I were the king two years ago, but without telling two years ago, that is had I been the king in some past time. – user31782 – 2015-01-15T16:41:21.333

@user31782 You really should ask questions about a new topic as a new question! Or search this site for hypothetical and see what answers already exist. – None – 2015-01-15T16:44:03.670

3

Use of the word "ain't" and such is associated with American southern dialects. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is actually a quote popularized by Bert Lance who lived in Georgia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Lance. So he said it that way first probably due to a regional dialect, and others started quoting him. I'll note also that the phrase also has a bit of a meter to it, so it sounds catchier than "If it isn't broken, don't fix it," which is another reason why it's stuck around in its grammatically incorrect form.

– Kai – 2015-01-15T17:02:00.163

@CarSmack Done

– user31782 – 2015-01-15T18:21:26.323

Did you really mean fishing poll? – Ben Kovitz – 2015-01-15T21:26:12.180

@user31782. Grammatically correct English would be "suppose those rabbit ears broke." But in colloquial American English you often find "suppose them rabbit ears". – Michael Martinez – 2015-01-15T23:29:51.523

One thing I find odd about the colloquial monologue: it reads to me as being very stereotypically (Southern) US in style … yet it uses aluminium, which I thought most Americans consider a very foreign and strange form, used only in British English? – Janus Bahs Jacquet – 2015-01-16T12:23:37.567

1@Janus Bahs Jacquet. I reckon the guy picked it up over the bbc. That's how I did. :) But yeah, good catch. For the record, I'm Southern born and raised, so I ain't poking fun at nobody exceptin my own kin. – None – 2015-01-16T16:53:27.657

12

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not grammatically correct standard English. This is deliberate. It's meant to sound simple, blunt, and uncultured because it's old, common-sense advice. You can treat the whole sentence as a single idiom.

Don't use "ain't" in formal situations. Don't use "broke" like this at all. Doing so will make you sound uneducated.

EDIT: There's some discussion in the comments about AAVE and the merits of using it. Since this question is getting a lot of views, I'll expand my answer.

First, the saying "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not AAVE. It was popularized by a white businessman in a magazine published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1977 (page 27, bottom right). Variants were probably used in the South before then. The saying sounds southern and "folksy". The word "ain't" comes from British English. It is popular in AAVE, but many other nonstandard dialects also use it.

When I answer questions here, I assume that readers are trying to learn the standard English dialect of an English-speaking country, usually America or Britain. For a non-native, speaking in other dialects is possible but risky. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. In formal contexts, nonstandard English can sound insulting or unprofessional.
  2. People who speak a nonstandard dialect are usually part of a group with its own subculture. Imitating their speech without being part of their culture can seem weird, embarrassing, or insulting. This is especially true if you make a mistake.
  3. People who speak nonstandard English are often perceived as uneducated, stupid, shallow, poor, or other bad things.

This applies to AAVE, valley girl speech, redneck speech, probably Cockney speech, and others. There's nothing wrong with asking questions about them, or (in some situations) speaking them. But if you want your words to be safe and reliable, always speak standard English.

Adam Haun

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation: 3 023

Why is everybody saying don't use AAVE? Can't an educated person use AAVE? – user31782 – 2015-01-15T15:38:22.300

@user31782 I think the origin here is more Southern colloquialism than AAVE, but, either way, neither is appropriate for formal English communication. Use of either in formal situations would indeed make you look uneducated. – reirab – 2015-01-15T15:42:39.627

1@reirab Do all native English speakers consider AAVE speakers to be uneducated? If this is the case then I'll intentionally use AAVE -- That would be cool. – user31782 – 2015-01-15T15:54:26.323

1@user31782 Use of non-standard English in formal communication in general is considered unprofessional by most native English speakers and most would indeed assume a lower education level (of English, at least) among those doing so. The reason that most native English speakers would make this generalization is that it's usually true (not specific to AAVE, but all non-standard forms of English.) – reirab – 2015-01-15T16:22:53.487

1@user31782 As I said in a comment in your previous question about ain't, speakers of AAVE can speak AAVE when they choose. And they know that in situations it is wiser to speak standard English. The way we use language affects the perceptions that others have of us: this is a simple fact. Also, I have heard African American professors give lectures in AAVE--in a class that discussed African American perceptions of literature. What register we speak in depends on context. This applies to nonstandard dialects across the globe. I'm sure your native language has standard and nonstandard usages. – None – 2015-01-15T16:41:51.950

I have been told some time ago that imitating AAVE can be considered insulding or they can think me of mocking their speech -- I always try not to speak or write in AAVE. Although I would use AAVE if your 3rd point were the only thing. What is strange to me is the fact that how can the speakers of a certain dialect be stupid. Stupidity or intelligence is totally unrelated to the language one speaks. I also wouldn't feel any hesitation if someone would know that I was born in a poor family. – user31782 – 2015-01-15T18:46:07.193

1@user31782 In America (and the UK), dialect is a marker of race, social class, and economic class. Unlike India, America started out with a (mostly) unified language and culture. People who spoke nonstandard English (or worse, other languages) were either slaves or (later) poor immigrants. The race and class politics of the United States are complicated. If you want to know more about the relationship between dialects, politics, and prejudices, you should read some history or ask a question on the Politics SE. – Adam Haun – 2015-01-15T19:04:21.927

1My point is that even if someone is black, belong to lower social, economic class, or poor or whatever, it has nothing to do with the intelligence level. – user31782 – 2015-01-15T19:09:26.833

@user31782 A notable exception to the race/class factor is valley girl speech, which is associated with wealthy teenage white girls. – Adam Haun – 2015-01-15T19:09:45.663

3@user31782 Of course race, class, and wealth don't determine intelligence. That's why it's called a prejudice. :-) – Adam Haun – 2015-01-15T19:10:44.653

1@user31782 Or perhaps ask another question on ELL, specifically about social classes and English dialects. It’s an important and subtle topic, and, I imagine, a source of confusion for many people learning English. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-01-15T21:44:11.893

1My personal observation is that in the US, about 80% of native English speakers who regularly use any kind of non-grammatically-correct vernacular as part of their daily speech haven't had schooling beyond middle or high school. This applies to whatever kind of colloquial speech you can think of (redneck, cholo, valley girl, ...). Regardless, it should be clear that lack of schooling does not equate to lack of intelligence. If you grow up in an environment where a vernacular is spoken, you will speak that vernacular, regardless of your intelligence. – Michael Martinez – 2015-01-15T23:35:07.843

1@MichaelMartinez: how surprising. I went to Oxford University, so did most of my close friends because that's where I met them. Almost everyone I know regularly uses non-standard grammar as part of their daily speech. What they don't do so much, is use it in formal registers. That's because the ability to use standard grammar must be trained, and so using it correctly is a signal of education, and so in formal contexts everyone uses it to signal their education to each other. Maybe the UK is very different from the US in this respect, and educated Americans entirely drop their vernacular. – Steve Jessop – 2015-01-16T10:35:48.037

@BenKovitz I've asked another question, but not about social class, race or politics etc. The question explains my disagreement with Adam's answer. I am not interesting in knowing how people judge a dialect. I only want to learn the dialect. I'll also never try to imitate AAVE if it disrespects someone.

– user31782 – 2015-01-16T14:05:52.430

To be blunt, neither the original answer nor the redacted answer actually answers either of the OP's specific questions. What does ain't mean here, and why is broke not broken used here. Of course, I've also not understood the first line of your answer. In modern vernacular English, the phrase is grammatically correct. People don't seem to realize that dialects other than standard English dialect do work according to grammatical rules – None – 2015-01-16T17:05:12.393

1@δοῦλος The question I answered was "Please explain in detail what is going on." What's going on is that this saying is an idiom, not an example of a usable pattern for a language learner. The words were chosen for a deliberate effect. In normal use, they do not indicate the speaker's dialect. This is clear from the primary source, which is an interview with a high-level government official in a business magazine. I changed "modern English" to "standard English" in my answer to clarify the dialect issue, but dialects are tangential to the standard meaning and usage of this saying. – Adam Haun – 2015-01-16T18:27:39.170

1@δοῦλος they work according to "some" grammatical rules, not necessarily the standard rules. – Michael Martinez – 2015-01-16T22:08:50.413

4

broke for broken

There is a normal tendency to reduce the number and forms of irregular verbs. To break normally has the stem forms break broke broken. The next step of simplification would be break broke broke and possibly break breaked breaked might come up sometime.

The form broke is already established as a predicative adjective in colloquial language: I'm broke - meaning having no money and in the expression to go broke said of firms that go bankrupt.

And I'm not astonished that in some dialects or substandard speech "broke" has substituted broken.

rogermue

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation: 8 304

1

This is simply colloquial English, which isn't grammatically correct (as far as Standard English is concerned). So, don't use something like that in a formal setting. In an informal context, "broke" is simply short for "broken". This is in use all over the United States, particularly among people who haven't had much schooling. In this case, it has nothing to do with "being broke" (not having money).

Michael Martinez

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation: 184

2What do you mean by "Broke is simply short for "broken"? Do words have short and long forms? If they do, why is a short form ungrammatical? In addition, what does your first sentence mean? Are you saying "colloquial English" isn't grammatically correct? What do you mean by "colloquial English"? – None – 2015-01-16T01:22:47.773

I don't mean broke is a "correct" short form of the participle "broken". It is an "incorrect" form of it, which is why it is not grammatically correct. ... I think you already know what colloquial English is, so I won't bother answering your other questions. – Michael Martinez – 2015-01-16T22:11:30.517

0

This question has many wonderful answers. But I would like to post a different approach.

What if the broke in this sentence means this:

broke
adjective informal

having completely run out of money.

Google Search

I know this wouldn't fit with the second part of the sentence ("don't fix it"). But still something different to think about, ain't it?

Soha Farhin Pine

Posted 2015-01-15T13:29:35.000

Reputation: 1 075