Q: I just finished Little Women, where the use of “don’t” for “does not” is the rule, even in the mouths of educated people. Any comment?
A: In the original text of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott published in two parts (1868 and 1869), “does not” is contracted as “don’t” as well as “doesn’t,” but “don’t” is used more often, as in this comment from Jo to Mrs. March: “It was an abominable thing, and she don’t deserve to be forgiven.”
As it turns out, “don’t” was the usual contraction of “does not” for more than two centuries, but Little Women was written when the usage was shifting, and many a “don’t” was changed to “doesn’t” in later editions.
As Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary explains in a usage note, “Don’t is the earliest attested contraction of does not and until about 1900 was the standard spoken form in the U.S. (it survived as spoken standard longer in British English).”
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage adds that the use of “don’t” for “does not” had “unimpeachable status” from the 17th century through the 19th.
However, we should point out that some prominent 19th-century writers were hesitant to use “don’t” as an all-purpose contraction, as we’ll show later.
The M-W usage guide’s earliest written example of “don’t” used as a contraction of “does not” is from Man of Mode, or, Sir Fopling Flutter (1676), a Restoration comedy by George Etherege:
“Old Bellair: No matter for that; go, bid her dance no more, it don’t become her, it don’t become her. Tell her I say so.”
But we’ve found several earlier appearances, including this one from a sermon by William Bridge, an independent minister in England:
“If there be a stamp set upon silver, or gold, the mettal remains as it was before: But if a stamp be set upon brasse, it don’t make it silver” (The Works of William Bridge, Sometime Fellow of Emanuel Colledge in Cambridge; Now Preacher of the Word of God at Yarmouth, 1649).
We’ve seen quite a few examples from the 18th and 19th centuries in which respected writers use “don’t” as a contraction of “does not,” including these:
“I hope so too, but if it don’t, it must be the Lords doing, and it will be marvellous in our Eyes” (A Dialogue Between a Dissenter and the Observator, 1703, by Daniel Defoe).
“Well then, said the Gentleman, I can’t answer for her Negligence, if she don’t; but she will send a Letter to you, Mrs. Jervis” (Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, 1740, by Samuel Richardson).
“But never mind;—‘God save the king!’ and kings! / For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—” (Don Juan, Canto VIII, 1823, by Lord Byron).
“ ‘You needn’t be afraid of him, Jack.’ And the Colonel gave a look, as much as to say, ‘Indeed, he don’t look as if I need’ ” (The History of Henry Esmond, 1852, by William Makepeace Thackeray).
“I like to hear you speak well of your commanding officer; I daresay he don’t deserve it, but still it does you credit” (W. S. Gilbert’s libretto of HMS Pinafore, 1878).
However, some writers were apparently hesitant to use “don’t” as a contraction of “do not.” In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Jane Austen occasionally contracts “do not” as “don’t” in dialogue, but never contracts “does not.”
As for “doesn’t,” M-W Usage says the contraction first appeared in print in the early 19th century, and cites this example from The Fudge Family in Paris (1818), a verse satire by Thomas Moore:
“ ‘This must be the music,’ said he, ‘of the spears, / For I’m curst if each note of it doesn’t run thro’ one!’ ” (The passage refers to the piercing notes of opera music.)
We’ve found several earlier examples, though, including this one from The Dramatic History of Master Edward (1743), by George Alexander Stevens: “Yes; but who reads them for you? your landlord, doesn’t he?”
Although Merriam-Webster online says “don’t” was the standard spoken contraction of “does not” until the 20th century, some well-known 19th-century writers did indeed use “doesn’t” in dialogue. Here are a few examples:
“If you don’t rejoice at it, if it doesn’t make you happy, if you don’t encourage me, I shall break my heart” (Barchester Towers, 1857, by Anthony Trollope).
“ ‘Mr. Dick is a sort of distant connexion of mine—it doesn’t matter how; I needn’t enter into that” (David Copperfield, 1850, by Charles Dickens).
“It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth,” Jo says about selling her hair for $25 (Little Women, First Part, 1868).
In the second half of the 19th century, some language writers, especially in the US, began attacking the use of “don’t” as a contraction of “does not” and favoring “doesn’t” instead, according to the linguist Karl W. Dykema.
Dykema cites many of these criticisms in his paper “An Example of Prescriptive Linguistic Change: ‘Don’t’ to ‘Doesn’t’ ” (The English Journal, September 1947). Here are a few:
“I am piteously entreated, by more than one correspondent, to say that ‘he don’t’ is bad English, and therefore I say it. But ‘he don’t’ for ‘he doesn’t’ is, I suspect, an example rather of phonetic degradation than of ignorance or defiance of grammar” (Everyday English, 1880, by Richard Grant White).
“Don’t. Everybody knows that don’t is a contraction of do not, and that doesn’t is a contraction of does not; and yet nearly everybody is guilty of using don’t when he should use doesn’t” (The Verbalist, 1881, by Alfred Ayers).
“Don’t for doesn’t, or does not. Even so scholarly a divine as the Rev. Dr. Bellows, of New York, employs the vulgarism four times in an article in the ‘Independent’ ” (Words: Their Use and Abuse, 1892, by William Mathews).
Dykema blames prescriptivist American grammarians of the late 19th century for the loss of “don’t” as an all-purpose negative contraction:
“The moral, I hope, is clear: We have through enormous effort accomplished something utterly useless. We have cast out from the standard language a construction which fulfilled the primary function of language—communication—with efficiency and propriety.”
Finally, why did “don’t” become a contraction for “does not” in the first place? The story begins in the 17th century, at a time when all forms of the verb “do” were unsettled, to say the least.
For one thing, “does” and “doth”—both spelled in a variety of ways—were competing for prominence, as M-W Usage points out.
For another, some writers used the bare (or uninflected) “do” as the third person singular. The usage guide cites Samuel Pepys, writing in 1664: “the Duke of York do give himself up to business,” and “it seems he [the king] do not.”
M-W suggests that the use of the uninflected “do” for “does,” as in the Pepys citations, may have influenced the use of “don’t” as a contracted “does not.”