Wednesday, May 22, 2013

HIstorical Research -- Contractions

The last book of Regency romance I read was authored by one of the best-selling New York published writers in the world. Her romances are legendary, she's created dozens of characters, two or three series, and has hit the #1 spot more times than I care to count.

I hated that book.

The plot was flimsy, the main character was only interested in getting her man into bed, and the sex was...well, let's just say I skipped over that part. (If you've read one sex scene, you've read them all.) But the one thing that peeved me off to no end was that the author used contractions in her dialogue.

Can't Wasn't Don't Didn't Doesn't Shouldn't Wouldn't I'd We'd I'll You'll etc etc

Were not in much use by the aristocracy until the late 1830's. It seems they thought "proper" English kept them apart from the lower classes. And even though my etymological dictionary said that most of these words were being used from the 18th century, you will find, only the "lower classes" used "cant", or contractions.

Surprisingly, in digging into this research, the use of contractions originally started with publishers, newspaper men, and printing press operators. In order to fit so many words to a line, so many lines to a page, they decided to form contractions of these particular certain words. (There is a website to back me up on this, but I've lost it. It has a really funny name like WordSplunk dot com or something like that. If I ever find it again, I'll put it on my sidebar.)

Now some readers think that my non-use of contractions makes the story stilted and hard to read. And I say to them -- If you want a hard read, try Jane Austen. No contractions there. However, if you're going to write about 1811, you need to speak like you're in 1811 if you have dialogue in your book. No two ways around it.

There is one caveat to that statement however. None of us were living in 1811 so we can't really know how they actually spoke. All we have are letters and writings of the time. And if that is any indication of the language then, for me, there are no contractions in my stories. (Or very very few. I have been known to use You'll and I've on occasion.)

So, any word nerds out there? Do you think historical dialogue should be with or without contractions?

Anne Gallagher (c) 2013


  1. Contractions are great for modern stories but they were not, as you say, in use in the 1800's. I think how you use them is the key. Stilted? Not really. It gives a flavor of the time and all the proper varnish of how they spoke.

    Funny, I was taught not to use them in writing--not proper English you understand. We were given points off in school projects if we did use them. I think it stuck with me. I have to consciously put them in, at times.

    My beta readers still slap me with the need for contractions, lol!


  2. I remember I got into an argument with my English professor in college (she was very smart and I was foolish). I'd been taught all my life that "ain't" isn't a word. She correctly showed me it is the contraction for "am not."


  3. I'm don't think your lack of contractions bothered me. I think finding them might have.

  4. Sia -- I have a habit of using cannot instead of can't in my "modern" writing. Funny what creeps in.

    Michael -- I still maintain ain't ain't a word.

    Liza -- I think finding them might have bothered me. Sloppy writing. Shame shame.

  5. I don't think I mentioned it before, but your blog here really looks super.

    As for contractions, you're absolutely right. If a writer is going to write historical fiction, she should use dialog to properly reflect that period in history.

  6. I began to write my regency WIP with absolutely no contractions, but as I've read more novels from the period (and watched mini-series and movies), I discovered they were actually used, if sparingly. Your blog post has spurred me to do some further research.

    It's clear that contractions were in use well before the regency - look at Shakespeare. It only seems that they were out of fashion with the upper classes in the early nineteenth century. Running word searches on P&P and S&S shows that Austen does use don't, won't and shan't quite a lot, and I'm and I'll with less frequency. There seems to be an absence of wouldn't, couldn't, isn't, didn't, etc. I think this will be my rule of thumb: if she used it for her upper-class characters, it's authentic.

    I also get annoyed with the speech patterns in best-selling books - a lot of the phrasing and even the vocabulary seems far too modern.

  7. I was pondering this very topic last night. I watched Django. I don't expect that movie to be anything other than what it was, but their use of the F-word tossed me considerably. McCammon in his Nightbird does the same thing, f-bomb f-bomb f-bomb. And this is among the Puritans!

    Like you say, we can't go back in time and listen, and even if we did we couldn't listen to every dialect and every slang, but we can read novels from that period and study their dialogue traditions.

    So if the author is writing a period piece, they should do their research and structure it intelligently.

    But you don't need that, do you. Case-in-point is your very wealthy and successful author. Another case-in-point is steampunk and fantasy, which actively disregard period, modern, and future traditions.

    Only other authors worry over these points! Readers simply do not care, so long as they are entertained. ;)

    - Eric


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