Contractions in Historicals


I’ve seen some posts lately on other sites where readers complain that contractions should not be used in historical novels, that people back then did not use them, while authors respond by saying “but we have to write for today’s reader, and we turn them off with all the wordy speech of the ‘cannot’ and ‘will nots.’

Having been through this argument many times with a friend of mine, I did some quick research and picked up a few books on my desk that had quotes from journals written in the 1800s and earlier. And found:

Ben Jonson – The Alchemist (1610):

They shall finde things, they’d thinke, or wish, were done

Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders (1724)
‘Yes, sir,’ said I, ‘I believe I may venture to trust you with myself, for you have a wife, you say, and I don’t want a husband; besides, I dare trust you with my money, which is all I have in the world, and if that were gone, I may trust myself anywhere.’

Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre in 1847:

The second paragraph of chapter II: ““Hold her arms, Miss Abbot: she’s like a mad cat.”

and later in the same chapter: “If you don’t sit still, you must be tied down,” said Bessie. “Miss Abbot, lend me your garters; she would break mine directly.”
Miss Abbot turned to divest a stout leg of the necessary ligature. This preparation for bonds, and the additional ignominy it inferred, took a little of the excitement out of me.
Don’t take them off,” I cried; “I will not stir.”

In
Emma by Jane Austen (1816):
Chapter IV: Don’t pretend to be in raptures about mine.
Chapter IX Don’t class us together, Harriet. My playing is no more like her’s, than a lamp is like sunshine
and
Chapter II: Ah! here’s Miss Woodhouse

In the non-fiction historical account, Lives and Times of the Patriots by Edwin G. Guillett, page 101 in my copy, cites an account written by a trooper writing in 1838: “…The Captain put him on his horse and held him there, and brought him up and called for help to take him off his horse saying, “He’s a dead man.””

Another non-fiction biography about two real-life bluestocking sisters (whose sister later became Queen Victoria’s biographer) who emigrated to Canada in the 1830’s: Sisters in the Wilderness; the Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill by Charlotte Gray:

This quote is by Robert Baldwin, a ‘distinguished Toronto lawyer’: “… pray don’t ask me to eat. I am sick of the sight of food.”

Later Susanna Moodie herself writes a character in a story that says: “I don’t know what we should do without Benjamin Levi,” and also writes in her journal about a barn raising bee: “His son, Sol though himself as in duty bound to take up the cudgel for his father. ‘Now, I guess that’s a lie, anyway….

And let’s not forget Shakespeare who often used contractions back in Elizabethan times (1599 or 1600). From As You Like It:

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.”

–From As You Like It (II, vii, 139-143)

And if you think about it, but what are the age old use of ’tis and ’twas if not contractions of ‘it is’ and ‘it was’?

It took me less than 30 minutes to find eleven uses of contractions from 1600 to the middle 1800’s showing that contractions were indeed used by authors such as Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte, along with quotes from journals of more regular people. I do note that most of these are used in ‘speech’ rather than formal writing, so perhaps like me, a writer in that time writes more formally, without contractions, than when they speak. Or perhaps not using contractions was more a case of the author/publisher/printer adhering to a ‘style sheet’ the way we use Strunk and White today.

Anyway, I’m satisfied within myself that contractions were used in that era, so I’m going to be using them, definitely within speech. I often will deliberately write some characters not using contractions, to show a more frosty or upper-crust character, but I will not write with no contractions in speech at all.

And as a side note for those medieval purists … if we really wrote the way they spoke, we’d be having to write like this — want to bet no one would read it? Or could?

From the Wakefield Cycle, written in the 1500’s:

Do way, lord, greyf you not so,
youre messyngere ye cause furth go
Aftyr youre cosyn dere,
To speke with you a word, or two,
The best counsell that lad to slo,
ffull soyn he can you lere;
ffor a wyse man that knyght men know.