can’t…don’t…won’t…shouldn’t…shan’t…mayn’t…might’ve…should’ve…

You get the idea.

Contractions.

A short, quick way to write our most commonly used words. And nowadays no one really has much of a problem with them (we use them too much anyway to pick on them.) Yet, someone once did have a bone to pick about them.

Who was that man?

Lewis Carroll; the famous writer of Alice In Wonderland and, a jack of all-trades in the educational arena.Carroll’s biggest pet peeve in the world of punctuation was with (what he held was) our incorrect connotation of contractions. In response to critics’ objections to his ingenious modification of the contractions in his book, he said this:

[C]ritics have objected to certain innovations in spelling, such as “ca’n’t”, “wo’n’t”, “traveler.” [As opposed to what used to be traveller.] In reply, I can only plead my firm conviction that the popular usage is wrong. As to “ca’n’t”, it will not be disputed that, in all other words ending in “n’t”, these letters are an abbreviation of “not”; and it is surely absurd to suppose that, in this solitary instance, “not” is represented by “’t”! In fact, “can’t” is the proper abbreviation for “can it”, just as “is’t” is for “is it”.

It does seem pretty ridiculous doesn’t it? English-speakers reducing whole words to incorrectly assembled letters! Pah! But wait–he goes on…

Again, in “won’t”, the first apostrophe is needed, because the word “would” is here abridged to “wo”: but I hold it proper to spell “don’t” with only one apostrophe, because the word “do” is here complete. As to such words as “traveler”, I hold the correct principle to be, to double the consonant when the accent falls on that syllable; otherwise leave it single. This rule is observed in most cases (e.g. we double the “r” in “preferred”, but leave it single in “offered”), so that I am only extending, to other cases, a existing rule. I admit, however, that I do not spell “parallel” as the rule would have it; but here we are constrained, by the etymology, to insert the double “l”. (1)

As you can see, he made a big enough point of this so as to go and address the critics’ complaints of his first book (Sylvie & Bruno) in the preface of the next book (Sylvie & Bruno Continued).

Big deal, you say. And you’re right—you won’t go to jail if you write contractions either way. But let’s examine what he was saying for a moment:

Carroll held that words like “can not” should be contracted as “ca’n’t”; with the “n” in “can” being omitted and the “o” in “not” being omitted, and both replaced by an apostrophe. Hmm. Alright.

But wait…if you’ll think a moment “can not” is actually always written together as one word, “cannot.” Hmm! So actually, “cannot” could legally be written as “can’t” because the apostrophe might be taking the place of only two letters; the second “n” and the “o”.

So that might be a substantial enough defense of our common spelling of “can’t”; but what of the other contractions? Such as: won’t, don’t, shan’t?

Well. at first glance, it appears to me that our way of ‘making’ contractions is to 1) lop off the last half of the first word and 2) smash it together with the “not”, contracting the “o” with an apostrophe. See for yourself…

can’t = “can” plus “not”, minus the “no”, and an apostrophe added in its place. Two words are moved together and the apostrophe takes the place of two letters.

don’t= do + not (minus the “o” again) = do n’t which is then moved together (do->n’t) to spell: don’t.

won’t= would (minus “-uld”) + not (minus the “o”) = wo n’t (with a space)

Which is then moved together (wo->n’t) to spell: won’t.

shan’t= shall (minus the “-ll”) + not (minus the “o”) = sha n’t

Which is then moved together (sha->n’t) to spell: shan’t. Personally, I believe that this contraction (judging by the way we use the word, and say it) is an ‘evolved creature’ from the two contractions “shouldn’t” and “can’t”; as opposed to its parentage being shall and not.  It just makes more sense.[Shouldn’t + can’t= shan’t]

would’ve= would + have (minus the “ha-“) = would’ve

This seems to be the only reasonable explanation of how we English-speakers got our contractions into the state they are today.

Would you like to see my personal formula for contracting words? Go ahead give it a try & see if I’m right:

  • Cut off the tail end of the first word.
  • Remove the front end (as in should’ve, when “have” is cut to “-ve”) or the middle of the second word (like the “o” in “cannot”)
  • And then finally, (as if that’s not enough!) smash the two mangled contractions together.
  • Ta-da! You have your can’ts, should’ves, won’ts, etc.

Complicated, huh? Who knew that your most used everyday sayings are so dog-gone confusing! But I believe me, that is exactly what makes grammar so fun: there’s no end of it!

Always some new theory or controversy to debate about.

Your Peleographer,

Titmoss

 

(1) Excerpted from Lewis Carroll’s book preface to Sylvie & Bruno Continued (a little known second set of stories he wrote.
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