To Contract Or Not To Contract, That Is The Question . . .

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I’ve been mulling over this question for a while now. Most of us use word contractions in our everyday conversations – how stuffy our chatting would sound without them? Imagine saying to a best friend, ‘Let us go for a walk now the rain has stopped.’ Wouldn’t we be more likely to say, ‘Let’s go for a walk now the rain’s stopped’? 

Perhaps not something you’d say to your best friend, anyway, but I hope you get my meaning.

So what can we say about the use of contractions in novel writing?

Personally, I think the same thing applies to written fiction as to everyday speech. Surely, a book written without the commonly used contractions, especially in speech, would be dull and extremely stilted. (There are several definitions of this word, the following amongst them: stiff or artificially formal; wooden; pompous.)

So, how can we apply this to historical fiction?

Someone who read and reviewed my book on Goodreads (very favourably with an excellent, 5 star rating) messaged me privately to say that she wasn’t sure about the use of contractions in a novel set in the ninth century . . .

Well, I was a little thrown by that at first, although I’ve read many historical novels that do use contractions. So I consulted my editor, a very experienced professional. His immediate reaction to my suggestion of removing contractions from my current work-in-progress was one of almost shock-horror!

shutterstock_187060769Then he added, ‘Don’t even consider taking out the contractions, if only for my sake!’

This was followed by a lecture which, basically, followed the theme of my earlier post entitled, ‘Forsooth sir, canst thou not speak more plainly?’

Everything comes down to the changes in language over the centuries and how it is used. The language used in ninth-century Britain would have been as different to modern English as Russian is today. And who’s to say whether or not people contracted their words in bygone days? I imagine they would have done, and an interesing article I found on the Historically Irrelevant website supports that belief.

Even Shakespeare used a contraction in the title of his play, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well.’ Admittedly, that was several hundred years later than the ninth century – but I still hold to my point.

These are the key things I understand from all this:

  1. A fiction writer obviously needs to make a story interesting. In an informal/colloquial setting, stilted speech is out of place, and would probably not endear the character to the reader (unless we are purposely creating a stiff, pompous kind of person).
  2. In formal writing, language should not be littered with contractions. In informal writing, contractions seem to be acceptable.
  3. The use of contractions in historical fiction should not be seen as incorrect – unless the author particularly chooses to write in a more formal way.

When it comes to the nitty gritty, like most things in life it’s all a question of personal preference.

Did you know . . .?

  • The commonly used word, ‘Goodbye’ is a contraction of the old phrase, ‘God be with you’? A more detailed look at this can be seen here.
  • Most word contractions use only one apostrophe. But here are a few double contractions, with two apostrophes to think about (although, I must admit, I’ve never seen the third one with two apostrophes before. I know it’s made up of two words, shall and not, but it’s usually just written as shan’t . . . isn’t it?):
blackboard_double_contractions

Image from the ‘about education’ website

Note: Header image, ‘Contractions’, is from k-3teacherresources.com

About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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5 Responses to To Contract Or Not To Contract, That Is The Question . . .

  1. shanechall says:

    My new favorite word is oughtn’t’ve. Say it enough times and it starts to melt into this weird alien incantation.

    • milliethom says:

      You’ve really made me smile with this comment. I agree, it’s an odd contraction – but alien sounding…? I’d love to hear your new chants.
      Hope your writing is going well. You seem to be posting a lot of episodes. It’s just a question of keeping at it, as we all know too well.

      • shanechall says:

        Thanks! Well, the consistency I have nailed down. I stay far enough ahead that I can easily polish up one or two entries a day send them up. The trouble is finding more fantasy or science fiction readers on here. WordPress’s search function is pretty weak

      • milliethom says:

        I wish I could help by suggesting a few. I can’t think offhand of any scifi or fantasy readers. I’ll let you know if I find any, or, better still, I’ll direct them to you. I’m much newer to blogging than you are, so I.m still at the ‘learning how best to do things’ stage. I’m rapidly learning which type of posts don’t work at all, though! And yes, the WP search function is rather weak.

      • shanechall says:

        Well I don’t know if you’ve been blogging longer than I have or vice versa but your writing style seems to comes from a place of knowledge. You’ve self published your own work and I haven’t gotten the guts to try that yet. By all means do tell people about my work or let me know of any good sources of readers. Thanks again!

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