Q: I recently viewed the Coen brothers’ film True Grit and noticed that Mattie and the other main characters don’t use contractions. Was this the “educated” or acceptable practice of the period (the 1880s)?
A: Ethan and Joel Coen were asked this very question in a Dec. 14, 2010, interview with Newsweek magazine.
“We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period,” Ethan said.
We saw True Grit a couple of days ago and noticed that contractions do pop up once in a while, though not to the degree we hear them now.
We haven’t read the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the film is based on, but a discussion on the Language Log indicates that contractions show up at times in the book too.
Were contractions considered a no-no in the late 19th century? The answer is yes and no.
As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, writers have been using contractions in English since Anglo-Saxon days.
Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).
Contractions were an accepted part of the language for hundreds of years. In Elizabethan times, for instance, Shakespeare used them in dialogue (“But he’s an arrant knave”—Hamlet), in titles (All’s Well That Ends Well), and in sonnets (“That’s for thyself to breed another thee”).
“In fact,” we write in Origins of the Specious, “there were many more contractions in olden days than there are now, including such quaint old dears as ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’tis, ’twere, ’twill, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t.”
Throughout the 17th and much of the 18th centuries, contractions were normal in speech and respectable in writing, even scholarly prose. It wasn’t till the early 1700s that anybody thought to question them.
Addison, Swift, Pope, and others began raising questions about their suitability in print, even though educated people routinely used them in conversation.
By the late 18th century, contractions were in disgrace, tolerated in speech but considered by language authorities an embarrassment in writing.
Contractions remained in the doghouse until well into the 20th century, when opinion makers started coming to their senses.
In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used contractions without comment in his famous usage guide, indicating he saw nothing wrong with them.
But what about the suitability of contractions in True Grit?
Both the movie and the novel open in 1928, when Mattie tells about her adventures as a 14-year-old in the early 1880s.
In 1928, as we’ve said, contractions were coming back into favor, though some usage gurus still frowned on them until late in the 20th century.
But in the 1880s, when Mattie hired Rooster Cogburn to avenge her slain father, contractions were considered a no-no by usage authorities.
It’s unlikely, though, that Mattie, Rooster, or any other character in the book would have paid much attention to usage guides, especially in speech.
Contractions may have been condemned by the language mavens of the 19th century, but they were alive and well among the people using the language.
In the Language Log posting, for example, the linguist Mark Liberman points out the prevalence of contractions in Mark Twain’s novel Tom Sawyer, which was published in 1876, just a few years before Mattie hired Rooster.
Liberman writes that that there are 58 instances of “won’t” and just one of “will not” in the novel, as well as 223 instances of “don’t” and just one of “do not.”
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