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Contractions in historical settings (grammar)

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ladyeclectic

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I'm having problems with whether to use contractions in my current WIP and it's starting to get to me. The story takes place in late 1800s England (Victorian era), and I was wondering if anyone knew when they began to be used. It's just getting annoying to write out "I am" instead of "I'm" or "can not" instead of "can't" - not in the sense of I don't want to do the extra typing, but because my own voice is so contraction-oriented. I suppose this is something I could just say screw it and not deal with until I get to edits, but for those of you who wrote in a historical context did you use contractions in our spoken/thought dialogue or leave everything separate? When were contractions such as I mentioned above considered common vernacular in England? (I'm a stickler for historical accuracy, even though my story is AU/steampunk) Thanks for any advice!!
#1 - September 20, 2008, 01:51 PM

merewald

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I'm not entirely sure myself, but I found a couple of links that might be able to help you.

Over on the Mental Floss blog, question number 5, though not about historical grammar, does discuss it in some detail.

I'm not sure if this helps, because it was published in New York, not England, but "Graded Lessons in English" a grammar book originally published in 1889, is avaliable free in google books.

Also avaliable free on google books, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, on page 61, talks about contractions and how they were "condemned" by the elite as unintelligent and vulgar.
#2 - September 20, 2008, 02:33 PM

ladyeclectic

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So, it seems while the social elite at the time preferred the formal, "proper" way of saying things (aka, the long way) as a way to show "class", the common man had no compunctions against using contractions. Or, that's how it's going to be in my version of history.

 :thankyou
 :thankyou2
#3 - September 20, 2008, 06:40 PM

have you seen my fair lady?

the english language is based very
much on class. now, i'm talking from my
bottom, as i can't say this is based on
research, but yes, i'd venture the poorer
class probably would use contractions and
all sorts of funny grammar.

an the upper class is how the queen
would speak, very formal and proper.
#4 - September 20, 2008, 06:50 PM
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If you flip through Jane Austen, you'll see she used them occasionally in dialogue...but you can try using "older" ones like shan't or mustn't.  I seem to recall Dickens used them freely, but I don't much care for him and don't have any to check up on.  In my 1830's set stories I tended to have the adult characters use far fewer contractions than the teen characters and in general speak more formally, just as a way to communicate the generational differences.  

I care as much about historical accuracy as anyone writing historical fiction, but modern tastes and usage do have to be considered...it's hard for a lot of 21st century readers to slog through totally contractionless narrative and dialogue and too much old-fashioned grammar, so yuo might consider striking a balance between authenticity and readability.  :)  
#5 - September 20, 2008, 07:08 PM
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merewald

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I seem to recall Dickens used them freely, but I don't much care for him and don't have any to check up on.

I have a copy of The Pickwick Papers by Dickens, so I decided to take a swift look through it for you ladyeclectic. By just skimming I saw "don't", "they're", "that's", "I'll" and a ton of others. Marissa Doyle's right. He does use them very freely. (The book was originally published in 1837, to give you a date to reference.)

t's hard for a lot of 21st century readers to slog through totally contractionless narrative and dialogue and too much old-fashioned grammar, so yuo might consider striking a balance between authenticity

Excellent point. I completely agree.
#6 - September 20, 2008, 07:21 PM
« Last Edit: September 20, 2008, 07:23 PM by merewald »

ladyeclectic

Guest
I care as much about historical accuracy as anyone writing historical fiction, but modern tastes and usage do have to be considered...it's hard for a lot of 21st century readers to slog through totally contractionless narrative and dialogue and too much old-fashioned grammar, so yuo might consider striking a balance between authenticity and readability.  :)  

I agree. It's probably something I should wait until revisions to care so much about, but it was bugging me now and I couldn't find any conventions (guess I didn't know where to look). I suppose if I just have the crusty old guys who are among the social elite use no contractions, and the kids and others use a mixed variety.... Thanks for the help everybody, I really need to restock my bookshelves with some classics if I'm to be writing in that time period!
 :typing
#7 - September 21, 2008, 08:29 AM

ecb

Guest
The really easy way to answer this question has already been mentioned by Marissa: get ye a copy of popular fiction from the time period you're writing in, and see what's in common use!
#8 - September 25, 2008, 01:37 PM

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