Near the beginning of Against the Day and at the very start of Chick Counterfly’s association with the Chums of Chance, there is a seemingly ordinary exchange that, when more carefully considered, turns out to be quite curious. Chick, pursued by a group of KKK members intent on tar-and-feathering him as the son of a notorious carpetbagger, shows up at the Chums’ encampment. The idea of offering him protection begins to be discussed. Lindsay, the enforcer of rules and proper behavior, observes that the Chum’s Charter forbids them from interfering with the legal customs on the ground. What follows is the odd exchange:
“You ain’t from these parts,” replied Chick, somewhat sharply. “When they’re after a fellow, legal ain’t got nothing to do with it— it’s run, Yankee, run, and Katie bar the door.”
“In polite discourse,” Lindsay hastened to correct him, “‘isn’t’ is preferable to ‘ain’t.’” (8)
Randolph St. Cosmo, the commander, countermands Lindsay’s strict adherence to the Charter and offers Chick asylum. What is curious here is not Cosmo’s indifference to the letter of the Charter that it is his duty as commander to maintain but Lindsay’s indifference to grammar, something likely to go unnoticed during a casual reading because of the commonness of having to suffer pedants’ attempt to eradicate the use of “ain’t” from English. When I was in first or second grade, we used to make fun of such attempts by chanting, “I ain’t going to say ‘ain’t’ no more because ain’t ain’t in the dictionary,” a variation of a schoolyard expression of resistance that simultaneously affirms and denies the rule. The expression is mild in form compared to what Lindsay manages to do.
Lindsay tells Chick what word he should be using, but he is wrong: uttering “You isn’t” and “legal isn’t” wouldn’t bring Chick any closer to polite discourse than his using “ain’t.” Indeed, uttering “You isn’t” or “legal isn’t” in the above context would be as much an affront to informal English as it is to formal English. Lindsay’s error demonstrates the folly of demanding conformity to rules regardless of the context in which they are to be employed and thereby slyly—if unconsciously on Lindsay’s, if not the narrator’s, part—validates Cosmo’s ignoring the Charter with regard to interference in local affairs. The textbook rule—use isn’t instead of ain’t—is as inappropriate in the present context as following the Chum’s Charter.