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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You Can't (Cannot) Say That

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?


  1. I'm about halfway through the second season of True Blood, and I'm noticing Vampire Bill is beginning to use contractions. Again, this seems purposeful because part of his struggle is to make peace with what he is. Oh, and he has a young girlfriend. :)

  2. Well, as a reader, I do think it sets the tone of the book. If you are going for a very formal or affluent setting, than you might want to lose the contractions. But regardless of the time period, I think contractions have always been around for the masses...like you said about True Grit, the uneducated would not have had perfect speech. And it is jarring to watch or read about a character that uses perfect speech, when they shouldn't be.
    As a writer, I do struggle with that sometimes. I write historical, and usually about the upper echelon of society, but sometimes I use contractions to make my characters real to modern readers. Otherwise they should too formal and readers can't relate. Unless I am using a lack of contractions to make the point that the character is very proper, and most likely no fun at all.... ;D

  3. Olivia,
    I struggle with this as well. Maybe the key is to make the decision be deliberate.

    In one of my upcoming books, I have a Creole heroine whose first language is French. When she speaks English, she doesn't use contractions. But for my English sea captain hero, it seems like he would pick up on the speech patterns of the men under him, at least while he's on ship.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts. And LOL on the no fun character. :-)

  4. As a writer of Regency romance, I use contractions sparingly. There are some I know were used, and some that were not. Took a lot of research to figure it out.

    I think in using the verbiage correctly it adds something to the manuscript that might not necessarily be there if you did not. Another layer of fullness, lushness, if you will, to the writing.

  5. I don't have a hard-and-fast position on this. As with everything else, I'll only notice contractions in a historical romance that's already annoying me for other reasons.

    I actually like uncontracted speech in historical romances because it helps me feel that I'm not in 21st century America. But I acknowledge that we don't know what people said 200 years ago, merely that books didn't, as a rule, include contractions.

    For an idea when the convention for how speech was written started to change, consider Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912. The original text is in the public domain, so I was able to cut & paste the text as it appeared for a blog post about the book. Check out the second excerpt here: You can see that he 's and you 're and could n't all show the second word reduced but not yet elided with the first, unchanged, word.

    That's just how people wrote, and not necessary all people. But it suggests to me that in the 19th century there was some sense that contractions weren't the most formal way to go.

  6. Anne,

    Excellent contribution to the discussion. I also like the authenticity that can come with using the correct verbiage for the times. Then at other times when I'm reading, the language sounds clunky, and I find I automatically switch it to a contract in my mind. But I also change characters' names if I don't like them. LOL.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts today.

  7. I struggle with this every time I write a book set in historical worlds. I guess if the character is well-educated, they probably wouldn't use contractions, but if they were middle to low class, they would? Or if two friends were talking together, they probably would use them. It just depends. lol At the end of the day, I don't think it matters as long as the scene and tones were set beyond the dialogue/language.

  8. Magdalen,

    Great name! I wouldn't change it in my mind if the heroine shared your name. :)

    >I'll only notice contractions in a historical romance that's already annoying me for other reasons. Too funny! Yes, when a book is rubbing me the wrong way, other things stand out as well.

    Great point about wanting to feel you have escaped from the 21st century when you read a historical. That's something to keep in mind.

    Thanks for sharing the example of Daddy-Long-Legs. (I can't believe it's a romance!)I bet the copyeditor would have a fit if we turned in our manuscripts using that format.

  9. I love this conversation, Samantha. If you look at more Jane Austen, you'll discover that in a few of her books, some characters used contractions--primarily those of the lower classes.

    However, if you look at her letters and other non-published writings (non-published during her lifetime, that is), you'll discover that her actual writing was way, Way, WAY different than what we see in her published works. In fact, I've seen bits and bobs of the drafts of her manuscripts, and her grammar was poor, her spelling was atrocious, her punctuation was haphazard, and I do believe I remember an abundance of contractions.

    This all points to one thing: her editors edited her work heavily, and likely took out most, if not all, of her contractions.

    But you're right, they were in use as far back as Shakespeare, if not farther. When I first started writing, I was very green, and one of my CPs told me that contractions shouldn't be used in historical fiction since they didn't exist then. I took her at her word, and strove to write contraction-free manuscripts. They came out stilted and choppy sounding, and completely unnatural. Then I discovered that the great JA had lower class characters who used contractions, so I tried adding them back in for my servants and the like. Yeah, still stilted and unnatural sounding. Eventually, I did my own research on the matter, discovered that contractions have been in existence since long before the Regency era rolled around, and decided to go with what worked best for my voice, my story, and my characters.

    I still try not to go overboard with writing contractions, because too many can pull the reader out of the story just as much as stilted writing from having too few. But I don't let it completely rule the way I write. After all, since we weren't alive back then, we don't know how many people actually spoke with contractions. We primarily know that they were used quite frequently in written correspondence, and quite infrequently in published works. Which is a more accurate portrayal of actual usage, and how do we decide?

  10. Great blog, Samantha.

    Honestly, people are naturally lazy with their speech--no matter how upper crust they are. Sure you might not hear yeahs and uh-huhs as much, but to me not using contractions in historical speech sounds like the urban legend of Americans not using the correct hand for the fork when we eat.

    We actually do and the ones that kept it in their left were being LAZY and trying to shovel food in their mouth as quickly as possible. (according to Miss Manners, :)) So...

    Oh and True Grit was extremely hard on my ears. What in the world???

    Also have to share a pet peeve of mine. People who say or write (facebook seems to have the worst offenders) between you and I instead of you and me. Or anytime I is used as the object of a preposition. *grumble, grumble*

  11. Sandra,
    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who struggles with this. I always vacillate between achieving authenticity and connecting with modern readers. I think there are many readers like me who love Jane Austen (Why do I always spell her name wrong? Doh! I know the difference, but I'm on auto-pilot.) and Charles Dickens, but then there are so many readers who don't like the classics because of the language.

  12. Catherine,

    I knew you would have a great contribution to today's discussion. You are my go-to girl when it comes to these types of things. How interesting about Jane Austen's unedited works. Just goes to show how even back then writers were at the mercy of their editors. ;)

    Achieving balance is another key, it seems.

  13. Marquita,

    You always crack me up!

    If we're adding pet peeves, it drives me nuts when I hear people say, "I seen Billy yesterday." You SAW him, people. *grumble, grumble* :D

  14. Oh, Marquita, a writer after my own heart. The I and me thing drives me up the wall. In fact, it is the one (yes, ONE) thing that makes reading the Harry Potter books difficult for me. Jo Rowling is one of the world's worst about using I when it should be me and it always makes me cringe. How many of her characters burst through doors and shout, "It is I," when they should be shouting, "It is me"? Way too many. I have to seriously force myself to keep reading when I come to those parts, because the rest is fabulous. Makes me wonder why her editors didn't fix it.

  15. Catherine, you make me giggle. We should form a club, I think. Call it WRITERS AGAINST THE IMPROPER USE OF THE WORD ME or I...or BOTH. ;)

  16. Samatha, I consider myself an entertainer, not a historian. So while my stories are riddled with a little bit of historical flavor they're not going to be perfect. I write for the modern reader so I tend to use contractions but I've also heard that if you use them, be consistent. So I do. My stories don't really take place in formal society. They're adventures on the sea or through thick jungles or even in the wild west. Can you really see one of my characters saying "cannot?" It just jars me right out of the story. So I think it's all about the story or even the writer's "style." If my stories were to take place "in" the ton I would probably not use as many contractions, but they don't. Clear as mud, huh? lol

    I love your voice btw. Your humor just shines through in everything you write. It's wonderful. This was a great topic and one that was actually one my mind recently because of the regency anthology we just wrote. I had wondered if I was using too many contractions but I realized that's my voice. My characters are in the middle of a jungle in Barbados so I think readers will understand that due to the pace of the story it just needs contractions.

    Thanks for the great blog!

  17. Great blog, Samantha! I wish I had more to contribute, but Catherine and Marquita pretty much hit the nail on the head and said exactly what I would have said. I did my own research years ago when I first started writing and came up with plenty of articles on the topic from scholars and such who basically said, "Of course people used contractions, you idiots!" LOL! I think it's similar to the "People didn't have sex or swear back then" claim by people like my mother. Ummm…right, Mom…

    And please, please, please can I join the WRITES AGAINST THE IMPROPER USE OF THE WORD ME or I…or BOTH club???

    Speaking of pet peeves…being from the south, I learned some things improperly growing up, so it really grates on my nerves when people say "This is she" because I learned it as "This is her" even though it's totally grammatically wrong. lol.

  18. Suzie,

    Ah, thanks for the lovely compliment. :-)

    I completely agree that it would be strange to hear Blaze in "The Devil's Daughter" saying cannot.

    Has anyone seen the movie "Choke"? The protagonist works at a colonial re-enactment place, and the manager is always making them speak with thees and thous. When the boss threatens to dock his check, Victor says, "Thou wilt feel the wrath of a $%&# beat-down." It was so funny!

    I can just imagine Blaze saying, "Thou wilt feel the wrath of my barking iron." NOT. LOL.

  19. Jerrica,

    Too funny. Being from the south myself, I grew up saying "fixin' to". It makes perfect sense at home.

    I think it's funny when people say married people never called each other by their first names during the regency era. I honestly doubt when women were giving birth they yelled out, "Darn you, Mr. Darcy!" But I could be completely wrong. ;)

  20. But, I just had a flash of a very funny scene!

  21. LOL I've probably done everything wrong grammatically speaking in my stories at one point or another. And I'm so surprised when you ladies don't yell at me!! So there's no way I can be in the club. Boo hoo. =(

    But I can start saying "It is I" and "This is she" on the loops more just because you've let the cat out of the bag and I know exactly where to poke and prod now. LOL j/k I'll take my bad grammar and go to the real life job now. You ladies have a good day!

  22. I'm a very Do-what-works-for-you as far as writing goes. I use contractions in my historicals as I feel it helps the flow and coincides with my voice. BUT it drives me nuts when people say "You shouldn't use contractions in historicals." One - because it's just not true. And - two - because I don't go around bashing books without contractions as stilted (even though I think so privately.)

    Do what works for you and allow the same for others. If it doesn't work for you, don't read it. BUT don't tell me what I can, should, or have to do. That just drives me nuts.

    And then I'll rant about it and everyone has to hear about it over and over. So as a favor to everyone I know - Do what works for you and leave everyone else to their own devises. ;)

  23. LOL! Yes, dear readers, please spare us all one of Ava's rants. ;)

    Ava, I'm very much a live-and-let-live gal just like you. I figure there are enough readers in the world, all with different tastes, that it serves everyone as a whole to have a variety of styles to choose from. (Gack! I'm ending on a preposition, which means I'm pushing someone's buttons right now!)

  24. I use contractions for some characters and none for others depending on how they speak. I'm more likely to use contractions for men then for women and if someone has lived outside of England, say in one of the colonies. There was a great discussion on this in one of the writer's forums. When we are writing, dialogue, we want the reader to hear our characters speaking. We don't always speak without using contractions.


  25. Marion,

    Thanks for adding to the discussion. You make a good point about wanting the readers to hear our characters speaking. :)