I’m Having Contractions

Here’s the saddest thing I ever discovered as a writer. Shakespeare did not write proper English! As a writer of historical fiction, I have been told several times that my characters should not use contractions. You know, I’m instead of I am, can’t instead of cannot, won’t instead of whatever it’s a contraction of. Yet Bill S. titled a play All’s Well That Ends Well and no one fusses. This was easily 200 years before the Regency period.

Anachronisms creep up in historical fiction now and again. One of my husband’s complaints about the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is the out of place things that creep up. Particullarly the Monty Python reference when the show didn’t debut on the BBC until years after Claire ā€“ well, I don’t want to spoil things. It should also be noted that he’s on his second read through all the books, and complaining that the next book won’t be out soon enough.

I remember a published author who was the speaker at an RWA meeting when I was first a member. Even though she knew better, she had her Regency main characters meeting in Trafalgar Square. Yeah, didn’t get that name until 1830. https://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/arts-culture/trafalgar-square/history

It’s a close call with the Yankee expression, Okay. You’ll find it in print by 1830, and that indicates a wide usage before that. I really like the Choctaw explanation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okay

As English is a living, breathing, chain-smoking, beer-drinking language, it changes a lot. Languages like Japanese have changed little in the past century. But English not only has changed, it’s colonized various parts of the world. These nifty graphs show the rise or fall in contraction usage since 1800.

Here’s an excellent article on some of the influences on English: http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/linguistics/change.jsp

The final word, of course, would be Miss Jane Austen. She uses contractions very rarely, but remember her writing went through publishers who had their own ideas of proper English. They no doubt filtered her words as they saw fit. But here’s one they missed:

It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.ā€
ā€• Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Thank you, Miss Austen, and thank you, gentle readers. See you on Sunday for the next leg around the world in books.


One thought on “I’m Having Contractions

  1. I agree…. to a degree.

    The historical (either fiction or romance) writer’s goal is to create a world, and then carry the reader off into that world. Granted, “exact” proper English of the time is an impossible (and quite probably unworkable) goal. In point of fact, we have notion of how they spoke at whatever point in time. We know how they wrote, but I think we an all agree that writing and speaking are two entirely different things.

    The trick is to give the reader enough to draw them into your world, and then keep them there, which means the writer has to walk that delicate balance. Inadvertent lapses in research is one thing, but you’ll also notice that, for a great number of readers, the greatest joy is finding the writer’s oversights.

    I’ll have to admit, a major gripe I have with too many historical romances is the characters sounding more like the gang down at Starbuck’s than in a Regency parlor. We take language very lightly here in the 21st Century, but in the 19th, 18th, 17th and beyond, it was serious business, particularly in social occasions.

    As a writer, my rule of thumb is to give it my all, to rob the nit-pickers the least chance of finding fault. Granted, there will always be fault-finders, but to be snarked at for something that I knew full well I should have changed is an aggravation I’d rather avoid.

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