Contractions are historical, y’all

One of my pet peeves in historical novels is when authors try to make dialogue sound authentic by removing all the contractions. A natural-sounding phrase like, “I’m sure you’ll do well,” becomes the awkward and kind of comical, “I am sure you will do well.”

Please don’t do this to your readers or your manuscript. Some characters will speak more formally than others, but here’s the thing: English is a lazy language full of contractions and short cuts, and that hasn’t changed over the years. On the other hand, using contractions that are too modern in historical pieces ruins the flavor, like putting mint in your orange juice, so you have to pick the right historical contractions.

The types of contractions people use have evolved, but there are plenty of authentic historical contractions writers can use to make their dialogue sounds more natural and still understandable to the modern reader. Look at Shakespeare. His works mark the beginning of modern English, and he uses tons of contractions – and not just when he’s trying to make words fit the rhythm.

So, here’s a brief look at the history of modern English contractions.

First, the “it” contractions: ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, ‘twould. These are pretty common in Elizabethan (1500s) writings, and don’t sound incomprehensible to modern readers. ‘Tis replaces “it’s,” and ‘twould would replace “it’d” if anyone is inclined to use that modern contraction. Google n-gram viewer, which measures how often words appear in print, shows “’tis” peaking around 1700 then falling off sharply, so that by 1800 it’s not very common, and probably old-fashioned.

Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writings provide ample evidence for contractions with “is” and “will,” like: she’ll, we’ll, there’s, and he’s. Shakespeare also uses “I’m,” so all of those are perfectly historical.

“Have” and “had” are apparently more controversial. The OED says the contractions -‘ve and -‘d are post-Elizabethan, but other scholars, like E.A.J. Honigmann in The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, disagree. They find evidence of contractions like “they’ve” and “she’d” in period texts and suggest these contractions might be just coming into use in writing during this time (they could have been used orally for some time before). So, you’re probably safe with those too in most English historical fiction.

I’ve been reading letters written right around 1650 (and anyone writing in this time period is going to be middle or upper class and well-educated), and they use plenty of contractions: I’m, I’ll, we’ll, you’ll, ’tis, ’twas, ’twill, on’t (of it), t’other (the other), in’t (in it), and with’t (with it). Don’t also makes an appearance.

Most of the “not” contractions come into English a bit late. My old friend the Online Etymology Dictionary gives these dates for when some of them came into use (this would be when they’re found in print – they may have been used verbally for a few years before):

  • don’t – 1630
  • won’t – 1660
  • couldn’t – 1670
  • hadn’t – 1705
  • can’t – 1706
  • ain’t – 1706 (considered correct English until the early Victorian period [1800s] when it came to be seen as lower class – this was when contractions in general got a bad rap in formal writing)
  • aren’t – 1709 (sometimes spelled are’n’t)
  • didn’t – 1775

And then there’s y’all. It’s an early-1800s Americanism from the South and later the West. It was probably adopted into white speech from African-American speech. As a contraction for “you all,” “y’all” is generally meant to be plural. If you’re saying it to one person, it implies they’re part of a group. So, “Y’all stay off our property,” means “you and all your folks.” You-uns or yins was also used in the early 1800s in the American Old Northwest (i.e. Ohio and Pennsylvania).

Jane Austen gives us an idea of which contractions are in use in England in the early 1800s. She’s much more sparing with them than my earlier samples, but in Pride and Prejudice, we find: I’m, don’t, can’t, shan’t, won’t, you’ll, and ’tis. Lydia and Mrs Bennet use the most contractions, but the less silly characters use them occasionally too.

In 1837, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist gives us: don’t, you’ll, he’s, who’s, I’ll, warn’t (were not), can’t, hasn’t, it’s, wouldn’t, mustn’t, haven’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, mightn’t, needn’t, ain’t, mayn’t, it’ll, there’s, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, that’s, where’s, there’ll, you’d, he’d, shan’t, daren’t (dare not), and a variety of other slang-y historical contractions, used liberally throughout the dialogue.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, published in 1855 and incorporating a wider variety of social classes, uses: don’t, shan’t, can’t, won’t, an’t (and it), mayn’t, didn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, doesn’t, it’s, I’ll, that’s, we’ve, they’d, I’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve, they’re, you’re, they’ll, she’d, she’s, aren’t, I’d, and some others – a pretty full complement. The laborers use many more contractions than the upper class characters, but even well-bred Margaret uses don’t, you’ll, I’ll, you’ve, I’m, and others fairly often. At this point, as in Dickens, “’tis” is gone, even from old fashioned or upper class language.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, uses most of the contractions that Gaskell used (though not “shan’t” or “an’t”), plus ain’t.

So, it from the Victorian period onward, in England and America, writers have a pretty complete palette of contractions to choose from, and in any historical time period, people of all social classes used contractions.

And there it is: a quick look at historical contractions for fun and profit (but mostly for fun 😉 ).

2017 Pitch Wars wish list

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Welcome to my Pitch Wars wish list! This is an awesome community, and I’m excited to be back and mentoring again in the adult category.

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Obligatory Pitch Wars GIF 😉

My official bio: E.B. Wheeler grew up in Georgia and California. She majored in history with an English minor and earned graduate degrees in history and landscape architecture from Utah State University. She’s the award-winning author of The Haunting of Springett Hall, Born to Treason (a 2016 Whitney award finalist), and No Peace with the Dawn, as well as several short stories, magazine articles, and scripts for educational software programs. She was a 2014 Pitch Wars alternate, and she’s represented by Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary. In addition to writing, she consults about historic preservation and teaches history at Utah State University.

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Like an agent, you want a mentor who clicks with you, so here’s a little more about me: I’m married with two kids, ages 5 and 8. We have a mini mini-farm with gardens, rabbits, chickens, a cat, and a keeshond. I love Indian food and cheesecake. I’m a Mormon. I have a rare neurological condition called Brown-Sequard syndrome from a spinal cord injury, so I’m own voices for disabilities. My favorite color is burgundy. My favorite historical periods are the Renaissance/early modern era, and the 1800s through World War I.

Books

Some of the books/authors I read over and over are Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Secret Garden, Jane Eyre, the Lord of the Rings, The Queen’s Thief series, and Terry Pratchett. I think Steven Brust is a unappreciated creative genius. I don’t get a lot of time to watch TV, but some shows I’ve enjoyed include The West Wing, Stargate: SG-1, My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the BBC’s Merlin (though I found the last season disappointing).

My critiquing style: For the person I select, we’ll go through your manuscript at least a couple of times, first for plot and character arcs, and then for fine tuning to bring out the best in your book. I’m honest in my critiques, but not crushing. I expect you to be open to feedback, but, ultimately, it’s your vision, and we can brainstorm together on trouble spots.

My critiquing strengths: I’m good at spotting sagging plot and character arcs and eliminating inconsistencies in both, ratcheting up the tension and stakes. I’ll also help you tighten up your language–make every word matter and cut the stuff that doesn’t add anything. Not sure if you have enough historical detail, or too much? I’m your girl. I’ve worked writing scripts, so I’m good with dialogue too.

Things I love in a book:

  • History! I’m a history geek, and I’m looking specifically for historical fiction, historical fantasy, or books that jump back and forth between past and present.
  • Interesting characters who feel like real people (text in red). Bonus points if one of them has a disability that affects them but doesn’t define them.
  • Realistic emotions – give me the whole range: laughing, crying, scared, excited – but I prefer an overall optimistic/hopeful tone, at least in the ending.
  • Strong voice and gorgeous (but not purple/distracting) prose
  • Wit and/or humor. I don’t expect to be laughing through the whole book, but I love clever dialogue and funny situations.
  • A good love story. That can mean romance, but also love between parent and child, siblings, friends, etc. Code Name Verity was beautiful and it’s all about friendship.
  • A little bit of mystery (Gothic romances are my guilty pleasure)
  • New insights into the world or the human condition

What I don’t love:

  • Books that put down or stereotype any ethnicity, religion, etc. Individual characters can have prejudices, but the general tone of the book should not be derogatory
  • On-screen rape or child abuse. If it’s a necessary part of the story and it happens off-stage or is not graphic, I can deal with it, but I can’t “watch” it happen.
  • Ditto with extremely graphic violence. I can handle blood and death, but I can’t do detailed murder scenes, or battle scenes that get down to the nitty-gritty of individual organs. If you’re describing someone’s squishy entrails, I may barf on your manuscript. 🙂
  • Graphic sex. I like my romances on the “sweet” side (though kissing is great!), and if sex scenes are necessary, I prefer them closed door. I don’t expect a sexless world, I just don’t need to see it happen.
  • Historical settings or characters that aren’t really historical. If Wikipedia was your only research source, it’s probably not historical enough for my tastes. Likewise if your historical character is abnormally “enlightened” for his or her time period – really just a modern person stuck in a historical setting (unless they really ARE a modern person stuck in a historical setting 🙂 ).

Last year most of my full requests were for historical mysteries or mysteries that jump between past and present, so I guess I have a soft spot for those, but I like all kinds of historical fiction:

  • Upmarket historical fiction–the kind of books you might read in book club – either set in the past, or moving back and forth between past and present (The Help, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, The Shape of Mercy)
  • Historical fantasy (Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Patricia’s Wrede’s A Matter of Magic)
  • Retellings of myths, legends, folktales, and classics (Tim Power’s The Drawing of the Dark, Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards)
  • Historical mystery – either set in the past or with modern people trying to solve a historical mystery
  • Clean historical romance. I love a good love story, but I’m also kind of picky about them. There has to be something keeping the characters apart besides a misunderstanding that could be cleared up with a five minute conversation, and I like to see both of the main characters grow. “Enemies-to-lovers” is my favorite romance trope – love that chemistry!

I’m not the greatest Tweeter, but I’ll try to hop on every evening to answer questions until the submission window closes. Also, I usually try to follow other writers back, but I’ll wait until after the mentees are announced to avoid any mixed messages.

Last year I tried (and failed) to get feedback to everyone who submitted to me. This year, for the sake of my sanity, I’m only going to giving feedback to those I request pages from, unless I have a specific suggestion for something I read but don’t request.

Best of luck to everyone entering Pitch Wars!

 

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