The Surprising Truth About Contractions

I use contractions when writing dialogue. When I don’t, the language can seem stilted and unnatural. I have long wondered how common contractions were in days past, but I was afraid to look it up and find that they weren’t common, because then I would have to make a decision: use historically inaccurate language to make it sound more natural, or use historically accurate language that seemed odd to modern readers. But when one of my critique partners objected to the word “can’t” in the first line of my book as historically inaccurate, I finally looked it up.

Did the Victorians use can’t, won’t, and other words regularly in ordinary speech? The answer is a resounding yes, as did many, many generations before them.

The brilliant book English Through the Ages by William Brohaugh (if you write historical fiction you must have this on your shelf) notes that the following words were in use before the seventeenth century:

1605: we’d, you’d
1610: they’ll
1615: they’ve
1625: it’s
1640: don’t, who’d
1655: can’t, won’t
1665: I’d, shan’t
1670: ma’am
1680: they’d
1695: you’ve

Other contractions that we think of as modern date from the 16th century, and were in use before:

1570: I’ll
1580: we’ll
1595: I’m, she’ll, they’re, you’ll, you’re

Others came later:

1745: I’ve, mustn’t, she’s, we’ve
1780: ain’t
1820: t’aint
1860: doesn’t, it’ll
1865: we’re
1890: mightn’t
1905: it’d
1970: ’til

photo (4)These words were in existence, but did anyone use them? Definitely.

Although she used contractions sparingly, Jane Austen’s characters did say “can’t,” “don’t,” “won’t,” and “I’ll”: “[Y]ou can’t think how disappointed he will be if you don’t come to Cleveland.” (Sense and Sensibility, written 1798, published 1811) “…I am sure it will be too much for Kitty. Won’t it, Kitty?” (Pride and Prejudice, written 1797, published 1813) “Captain Harville holds himself quite engaged, I’ll answer for it.” (Persuasion, written 1816, published posthumously 1818)



In North and South, written in 1854, Elizabeth Gaskell used “can’t” 45 times, “don’t” 79 times, “won’t” 49 times, “doesn’t” 10 times, “I’ve” 40 times, “you’ve” 56 times, and, well, you get the idea. Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain–every one of them used contractions in their books.

There are many times when I’m writing that I will want to use a word, only to find it didn’t exist at the time.  Most contractions, fortunately, don’t fall into that category.

What words seem modern to you that might not be?


Reality in Historical Romance

One of the blogs I follow is Hearts Through History, which features some marvelous posts on history in general, as well as historical romance in particular.  A recent post by Merry Farmer caught my eye, about historical body image. The concept of skinny, as she notes, is purely a 20th century notion, but most heroines in historical romance are portrayed as the young skinny girls of our current reality, rather than the curvy young women their real-life counterparts actually were.  Take a look at this piece of “genteel erotica” from 1886 and you’ll see what I mean:


Anyway, Merry’s blog led me to another I hadn’t seen before: Rakes, Rogues, & Romance by Nancy Goodman. How real, she asked in a recent post, do we want our romance? Do we read it purely to escape the reality of our not particularly romantic lives, or do we want something else?

Personally, I like some realism. I want to see the heroine lift her skirts a bit to step over the disgusting muck that filled London streets prior to the end of the 19th century. I want her to wrinkle her nose when she gets a whiff of the Thames as the wind shifts. I want to see the household staff wash off the windows, again, the soot that constantly covers them. In my mind, such snippets of historical fact add much to the setting, but don’t detract from the romance.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am a bit tired of the virginal teen heroine, who loses her maidenhead to the more worldly but gentle hero and almost always has an earth-moving orgasm on the first try. (No comment on the realism of that.) I have read many romances which feature this type of heroine, and have enjoyed them, but nowadays I find I like my heroines grittier, with more life experience before the first page. To me, they are much more real, and these are the heroines I like to write about.

However, as in most things in life, balance is important. I do understand the need to read as an escape from reality–it is very often that impulse which leads me to pick up a book. I read a lot of different types of fiction, but I open a romance when I want to be assured of a happy ending. It isn’t always very realistic, but it is usually immensely satisfying.

So if you read romance, how do you feel about realism? How much is too much?

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