I had a strange experience recently on, I believe, Facebook. It might have been Twitter, but I think it was Facebook. Having a cursory pass through my newsfeed, something caught my eye. It was a headline for a fairly typical slightly clickbaity article. It featured a young woman, presumably a model or actress, standing next to a billboard on which she featured. The headline was a quote from her, something like this:
I had the perfect response to everyone in school who said I was weird or that I wasn’t shit.
On the surface, it seemed like another typical uplifting/bitter inspirational bit of internet pseudo-journalism. She was weird at school, but you won’t believe what she looks like now! That sort of thing. But something seemed off, so I looked at the quote again. It makes sense at first, she wants to show all those people who said she was weird that she’s a success. But why does she want to do the same for the people who said she wasn’t shit? It’s not exactly a compliment to say that someone’s not shit, but it’s certainly not an insult.
It took me about two minutes to figure out what was happening. She didn’t want revenge on those people who’d said Hey, you’re not shit! She wanted revenge on the people who’d said You ain’t shit! You could say that You’re not shit and You ain’t shit are grammatically identical, but that would be ignoring the connotation of You ain’t shit, which anyone fairly familiar with American-English slang would recognise as an insult. It means You’re not even worth shit! Whereas You’re not shit means You’re not shit: you’re better than that! It’s an interesting case of how the meaning of language can be so distinct from simple grammar, and how studying grammar alone isn’t enough to understand a language. But if the difference between You’re not shit and You ain’t shit is so clear, why was I confused?
Because, she was using the past form of the phrase, and ain’t has no unique past form. She therefore had to use wasn’t, and it wasn’t clear that she was using the past form of You ain’t shit, and not You’re not shit. The reason she had to use the past form of the verb was because she was reporting someone’s speech, and when we report speech, we usually move the verb used in the direct speech back one place in time. For example:
“You ain’t shit!” he said.
He said that I wasn’t shit.
Which is what happened in this case, and you can see how it’s confusing if you don’t know the original quote. Here a few more quick examples of reported speech.
“I live in France,” he said. (10 years ago) – He said he lived in France.
“I’ve been here for half an hour,” she said. – She said she’d been there for half an hour.
“I’m looking for a job,” he told me. – He told me he was looking for a job.
“I live in France,” he said. (today) – He said he lives in France. (note how we don’t need to move the verb back if we know something is still true)
It’s a pretty straightforward grammatical form that native speakers use without thinking, as the woman in the story had. But of course, being a native speaker, she also comfortably used colloquial language like You ain’t shit. And normally we have no problem combining different types of language like that – the grammatically correct, and the colloquial. It’s what we all do naturally in our native tongue without causing any confusion. But occasionally, as in this case, following our linguistic instincts can cause confusion (though I wonder if this would have been more confusing for an American – if you’re such an individual, let me know), even for native speakers. Usually though, we can combine these different aspects of language easily, and if you’re a non-native speaker who can learn English to that level, then you’re certainly not shit!