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 šŸ˜‰ ).

2 thoughts on “Contractions are historical, y’all

  1. Lorrie September 24, 2019 / 2:58 pm

    I’m curious with all the examples here whether in some cases if the contractions were used along the lines of class distinction. Being, if the lower or less educated classes used contractions more than the upper or educated classes? Did authors purposely portray the characters differently by the use of contractions? Your thoughts?

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    • eabwheeler September 27, 2019 / 10:33 am

      Hi Lorrie, Good question! Contraction use and class depended on the time period. In some eras (Victorian), contractions were looked down on by the educated. And you get an interesting class dynamic with the middle class trying to distance themselves from the working class, so both upper class and working class people might use contractions and a lot of informal slang, while the middle class would try to be much more by-the-book formal about how they spoke. They couldn’t afford to be as “lazy” as members of the upper class, because their speech was one of the golden tickets that proved they had made it out of the working class.

      Another example of this is the word “valet.” If you’ve watched Downton Abbey, you may have noticed that most of the characters pronounce the word with the ending “t,” and it might sound odd to you. A while back in the evolution of our language, members of the middle class “Frenchified” the word “valet” and started to pronounce it without the “t” to show how cultured they were. That has become the standard pronunciation (after all, most teachers who passed on proper language to children came from the middle class), but members of the upper class had nothing to prove by dropping the “t,” and members of the working or serving class didn’t care as much or saw it as pretentious, so they keep the original “t” on the end.

      Discerning authors definitely used contractions to show character status and education. Some of them might not have even done it consciously; they were just imitating what they heard. For instance, Jane Austen’s male characters use more Latin-based words than her female ones, reflecting the higher levels of education they received. I’m not sure she actually sat down and thought, “This male character needs to use some Latin-based verbs in his dialogue.” I think she was just brilliant at reproducing what she observed every day.

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