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Why “won’t” isn’t “willn’t”

Q: I was having a conversation with one of my co-workers about “won’t” and grabbed my office copy of Woe Is I to resolve the issue, only to find (or fail to find) that the use of this word is not explained in the book. Can you render an opinion as to its acceptability?

A: “Won’t” is a perfectly acceptable contraction of “will” and “not.” However, it’s an odd bird that’s been condemned at times for not looking quite like other contractions.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes it as “one of the most irregular looking of the negative contractions that came into popular use during the 17th century.” Others include “don’t,” “han’t,” “shan’t,” and “an’t” (an early form of “ain’t”).

Why, you may ask, do we contract “will” and “not” as “won’t” instead of “willn’t”? Here’s Merriam-Webster’s explanation:

Won’t was shortened from early wonnot, which in turn was formed from woll (or wol), a variant form of will, and not.”

The M-W editors give early examples of “won’t” from several Restoration comedies, beginning with Thomas Shadwell’s The Sullen Lovers (1668): “No, no, that won’t do.” 

By the way, the verb “will” has been spelled all sorts of ways since first showing up as wyllan around 1,000 in Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin grammar.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many Middle English examples of the wole or wol spelling dating back to the 1200s.

So etymologically, there’s a case to be made for contracting “will” and “not” as “won’t.” Nevertheless, some language commentators have grumbled about the usage.

Joseph Addison, for example, complained in a 1711 issue of the Spectator that “won’t” and other contractions had “untuned our language, and clogged it with consonants.”

“Won’t,” in particular, “seems to have been under something of a cloud, as far as the right-thinkers were concerned, for more than a century afterward,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

“This did not, of course, interfere with its employment,” the usage guide adds.

It was popular enough, M-W says, “to enjoy the distinction of being damned in the same breadth as ain’t in an address delivered before Newburyport (Mass.) Female High School in December 1846.”

Both “won’t” and “ain’t” were condemned by the Newburyport speaker as “absolutely vulgar.”

“How won’t eventually escaped the odium that still clings to ain’t is a mystery,” M-W Usage says, “but today it is entirely acceptable.”

Of course a few sticklers still feel that all contractions aren’t quite quite. Well, we beg to differ. As we’ve written on the blog, contractions are impeccably good English.

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