Contraction-al obligations

Get a load of the size of the Etymology Monthly! Cartoon by John Deering.

The Word Nerd has cracked open her books again!
Cartoon by John Deering.

Occasionally we get questions about the grammar used on the editorial and Voices page, and as the resident word nerd on those pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I guess it’s up to me to answer a recent one.

Nyle Cearlock of Hot Springs asked, in a letter printed Sunday:

“Some time back I asked the editorial writers a question about a word in your lead editorial. I asked if the contraction ‘move’ll’ is a real word. I didn’t receive an answer.

“Then on June 20 in your lead editorial was a subheading with the contraction ‘that’ll.’

“I’m no rocket genius, but I really don’t know the rules for just how far you can go with contractions. Would you print a few lines telling us the rules?”

When she starts in with "ain't" and "y'all", ya'll better get ready to catch the whelp! Strange Brew cartoon by John Deering.

When she starts in with “ain’t” and “y’all”, y’all better get ready to catch the whelp!
Strange Brew cartoon by John Deering.

Thanks so much for your question, Nyle. The short answer is that strict grammar rules don’t necessarily apply to opinion pages.

In formal writing, such as research papers and the like, the rules certainly apply, and contractions are used sparingly if at all (and if you’re a student and your teacher says no contractions, pay attention for the sake of your grade). News writing is a little looser, but generally only the standard contraction forms are used, such as it’s, they’ll and weren’t.

Opinion writing is a whole other animal, and is much more conversational. Because of that, you’ll see the occasional “that’ll” simply because that’s how people speak.

Awww ... the "ha" looks so sad ... Image found on CommunicateHealth.

Awww … the “ha” looks so sad …
Image found on CommunicateHealth.

The Your Dictionary site notes: “A conversational writing style seemingly breaks all of the grammatical rules. It is aimed at the target audience and addresses them as such. Its sentences may begin with pronouns and end with verbs. Sometimes there are fragmented sentences infused to display a thought. Sentences may even begin with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ and ‘yet.’”

Yeah, we’re nutty like that on the opinion pages. Sometimes we even use “ain’t” … and we have no fear of the English teacher (and hey, I’m related to a retired one who used to cry when her classes read Beowulf).

If you stick that apostrophe after the "s," they'll never find your body. Loose Parts cartoon by Dave Blazek.

If you stick that apostrophe after the “s,” they’ll never find your body.
Loose Parts cartoon by Dave Blazek.

Now I wouldn’t go so far as to use “move’ll,” but that’s just me.

Contractions in the English language aren’t a new invention, going at least as far back as Old English (pretty much nothing like English now) and Middle English, the blog Today I Found Out reports. By the time Early Modern English came about, around the time of the Tudors and Shakespeare, contractions such as I’ll, don’t and can’t were working their way into the language, as well as shan’t and ’twould.

Thankfully those last two don’t get used much anymore. ’Twould be an awful shame otherwise.

He shan't listen to you anymore! Image found on funnyjunk.

He shan’t listen to you anymore!
Image found on funnyjunk.

Several style guides have come out in favor of contractions. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, says: “Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable.”

The government has even gotten in on the conversational language act … and if ever something needed to be more enjoyable to read, it’s government documents. According to PlainLanguage.gov, in the 1970s President Richard Nixon decreed that the Federal Register should be written in layman’s terms, and Jimmy Carter issued executive orders for regulations to be written to be easier to understand. Those executive orders were rescinded by Ronald Reagan, and it became up to the agency whether or not to do that. Some, like the Social Security Administration, chose to stay on the plain-language path.

Bill Clinton took up the torch anew in 1998, issuing an executive memo to federal agencies to write in plain language, and in 2004, an interagency task force called for federal websites to be written in such. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Plain Language Act, which requires agencies to write in language the average person can understand.

A short lesson in voice. I deal a wee bit too much with that last one; it's exhausting! Wrong Hands cartoon by John Atkinson.

A short lesson in voice. I deal a wee bit too much with that last one; it’s exhausting!
Wrong Hands cartoon by John Atkinson.

And what is that? PlainLanguage.gov says it’s language that helps your audience “find what they need; understand what they find; and use what they find to meet their needs.” To do that, it says writers can use pronouns, everyday words (which I’m sure would include contractions), active voice, and short sentences, among other tips.

Sorta sounds like news writing, doesn’t it?

In opinion writing, we try to engage readers in a conversation, so we on these pages tend to write as if we were talking to a friend over coffee (or cocoa for those of us who are not coffee drinkers), and in everyday conversation, few people are formal … unless they like swirlies and atomic wedgies.

Oh my God, did you see that wench use improper grammar???? Image found on SocialPro.

Oh my God, did you hear that wench use improper grammar????
Image found on SocialPro.

There’s more than enough room in writing for the use of non-standard contractions like “that’ll”—as long as it fits the tone of what you’re writing, which is why you’ll most likely find that word on the opinion pages rather than the news pages unless it’s in a quote. Because that’s how people speak, I can accept it in those instances.

“Move’ll,” on the other hand, I just can’t stand by. Then again, I didn’t write that.

Yeah, this one would not make it past my purple pen ... Image found on Kibin.

Yeah, this one wouldn’t make it past my purple pen …
Image found on Kibin.

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4 thoughts on “Contraction-al obligations

  1. Maybe there’s even hope for the ‘singular they.’ “Whenever a student told me they wanted a really good grade, I’d tell them they’d have to do the extra-credit assignments.” T’would let our writin’ catch up with our speakin’.

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  2. On the rare occasions when I talk to my former sister-in-law (who works as the Unit Secretary in the Labor & Delivery Unit at UAMS), I am reminded that the word “contractions” has more than one meaning. She has no desire whatsoever to evolve and is resisting it fiercely as well being functionally illiterate.
    When I get together with my friends to play music, one of our favorite songs is “Ain’t She Sweet” by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen. Ager and Yellen went to the same high school and graduated together the same year from this school. When they went to one of their high school reunions, they were celebrities because “Ain’t She Sweet” was such a popular song. However, their high school English teacher was at the reunion and she was not impressed by their success. She said, “I thought I taught you boys that ain’t is bad grammar.”

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    • I think grammar snobs and sticks-in-the-mud do a lot more damage to grammar than those of us willing to evolve do. If only they understood reverse psychology … 😉

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