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?

  • 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 Jan 15 '15 at 21:27
  • See also this post on ELU. – user6951 Jan 16 '15 at 1:13

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.

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.

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    That 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. – user6951 Jan 15 '15 at 14:40
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    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. – user6951 Jan 15 '15 at 15:27
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    @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. – user6951 Jan 15 '15 at 15:40
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    @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 Jan 15 '15 at 16:38
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    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 - 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 Jan 15 '15 at 17:02

"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.

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    @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 Jan 15 '15 at 15:54
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    @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 Jan 15 '15 at 16:22
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    @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. – user6951 Jan 15 '15 at 16:41
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    @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 Jan 15 '15 at 19:04
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    @user31782 Of course race, class, and wealth don't determine intelligence. That's why it's called a prejudice. :-) – Adam Haun Jan 15 '15 at 19:10

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.


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).

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    What 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"? – user6951 Jan 16 '15 at 1:22
  • 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 Jan 16 '15 at 22:11

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

What if the broke in this sentence means this:

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?

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