Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to contractions. Not the kind a woman has when she’s in labor. In fact, I never want to think about those ever again. I’m talking about combining two words into one with a handy-dandy apostrophe.
It seems there is always a little controversy over whether or not contractions should be used in historical fiction. I usually say “tomato, tomato” and don’t pay much attention to the great debate. But I got a laugh a couple of weeks ago when I was reading one of the Amazon reader loops telling authors how to write. A commenter said authors shouldn’t use contractions in historical romance because contractions didn’t exist “back then”.
Well, I suppose it depends on what time period “back then” refers to. Prior to 1706, that would be correct. Contractions, in the grammatical sense, have been around for at least the last 305 years. Pull out a copy of Shakespeare, and you’ll see his plays are riddled with contractions.
A quick perusal of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, revealed none that I could see, which may be the reason people erroneously believe contractions are a modern invention. Yet, contractions can be seen in letters written during the same time period. (Paper was expensive in the nineteenth century, so people combined words to say more in a smaller space. The first tweets, so to speak.) Whether or not these contractions spilled over into speech, we can’t really know unless someone has a time machine we can borrow. Make it a hot tub, please.
I’m also not convinced we can make sweeping assumptions about speech based on essays and works of fiction. These tend to be formal works and more likely to be representative of an ideal held by the author. Or perhaps he or she just wanted to sound smart. But in everyday life there may have been places where speech was very formal and more intimate situations were conversation was more casual.
Think about how we censor our speech in certain circumstances. When I slipped on the wet floor at my daughter’s school and busted my buttocks—see, I’m censoring now—I think said something like “cheese and crackers”. If I was at home and the same thing happened, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be yelling out snack foods.
I have two recent examples where writers have chosen not to use contractions in dialog: True Grit and True Blood. In True Grit, which I loved despite my coming criticism, the bounty hunters spoke very formally. Although I enjoyed the movie, I kept thinking how odd it sounded for these two men to speak without any contractions. Jeff Bridge’s character was obviously not educated because he couldn’t spell, so why would he have perfect speech? It kept throwing me out of the story, and I found myself wondering if the sceenwriters wrote the dialog that way because someone told them contractions didn’t exist in the 1800s.
However, omitting contractions in Vampire Bill’s dialog in True Blood works well. He was a proper Southern gentleman when he was turned, and part of his character involves him trying hard to stay connected to his human side. A very formal speech pattern is part of his characterization, but I have to admit, it grates on my modern nerves a little. If everyone in the show spoke that way, he wouldn't stand out.
So, what’s my point? Since none of us were alive in the nineteenth century, maybe we could be less rigid about a writer’s choice to use or not use contractions. In the end, I think it comes down to artistic discretion and what is most representative of a character and the author’s voice.
What are your thoughts on the use of contractions in historical romance?