Friday, June 18, 2010

Writing Myths — Busted!

While I had every intention of continuing last month’s blog about Regency medicine, I got sidetracked by an excessively common myth about the Regency period. Writing myths get my blood a-boiling so I thought I’d take a break from the poisons palmed off as medicine during the Regency and talk about dialog.

This topic may prove amusing to readers as well as writers, as it provides some insight into the amount of research writers put into a historical. We get sidetracked and go down hundreds of rabbit-holes looking up esoteric bits of historical trivia trying to be accurate. Even something as simple as a line of dialog gets put through an agonizing wringer to make it realistic and yet not entirely loathsome to modern readers.

So…there’s this odd idea that folks in the Regency all spoke lovely, perfect English with nary a contraction.


And I have this bridge I’d just love to sell you…

This idea couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a total myth. I mean Shakespeare used contractions such as “don’t” quite freely. And I don’t see it reasonable to assume that English-speaking peoples historically used contractions and then—for no apparent reason—stopped using contractions for a brief period of about fifteen years during the Regency.

Does that really sound right to you? A hiatus in the use of contractions?

And if you read a few novels, magazines, newspapers, and other works from the Regency period, you’ll find…(Oh, Horrors!) contractions! Only scholarly tomes and excessively proper books avoid the use of these very convenient words. Common or popular reading material like “Tom and Jerry” (the original Manga for the Regency period) is rife with contractions. Since that series of cartoons about Tom and Jerry’s escapades around London was intended for popular consumption, it is more reflective of what you might expect to hear every day coming from the mouths of your friends and neighbors, rather than the more proper “idealized” material from the period.

It is true that some contractions were more popular than others. It is hard to find "isn't" until the mid 1800's or so, but "don't" and the ever-popular "shan't" were very common, as well as "can't".

Even Jane Austen used contractions in her character’s dialog. Don’t believe me? Okay, here you go.

I’ve dug out a few examples from popular material during the Regency period, including some from our own, Dear Miss Jane Austen. And least you think I cheated, I actually included a "scanned" image, just to be doubly sure.

The Universal Songster, or The Museum of Mirth, published 1825

(I love these old books of songs, poems and rhymes, because they are—by their very nature—more informal and therefore probably closer to how a “real” versus “idealized” human spoke during the period.)

‘Tis Holiday Time; or We’ve Banged ‘Tom and Jerry’ by H.V. Smith

Emma, by Jane Austen

Jane Austen was excessively fond of the contraction, “don’t”. It’s strewn with abandon throughout her characters’ dialog.

And she wasn’t the only novelist using contractions, either. Here is another example from another writer. This writer not only uses “don’t” but he also uses “won’t” as well as “isn’t”, “wouldn’t” and “shan’t”. Those are not all the contractions used, but it’s a pretty good indication that folks were just as fond of verbal shortcuts as we are, today.

Belville House — A Novel, by published 1805
The following is another snippet from the same book, but a little earlier in the story.
So, not only did they use contractions during the Regency, but they did so well before that, too. Here are a few more quotes from some random works written during the centuries before the Regency.

The Orphan, or The Unhappy Marriage by Thomas Otway - 1797

"You shan't stir — Was ever any thing so provoking, to mislay my own jewels, and force me to wear trumpery. Tony. Don't be a fool. If she gives you the garnets, take what you can get. The jewels are your own already."

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: a tragedy by William Shakespeare - written 1603-8, edition dated 1797

"…this scene don't take, 'egad, I'll write no more. Come, come in, Mr. a nay, come in as many as you can Gentlemen, I must desire you to remove a little, for I must fill the stage. Smith. Why fill the stage ?"

Miscellaneous reflections occasion'd by the comet which appear'd... by Pierre Bayle, 1708

"I Don't know whether we mayn't justly apply to Religion what Julius Cesar answer'd those who advis'd him to beware of Anthony and Dolabella? I, ne'er suspect those slums jolly Beaux? I much more dread the sale meager Faces..."

The Way of the World: a comedy by William Congreve, 1706

"I shan't endure to be reprimanded, nor instructed… 'tis so dull to act always by Advice, and so tedious to be told of ... Come, don't look grave then. Well, what do you say to me? Mira. I say that a Man may as soon make a Friend by his ..."

Okay, enough of that. Hopefully, that convinces you.

Please remember, though, if you’re a writer—never argue with your editor. She is always right. If she tells you to expunge all contractions from your historical novel, then my advice is to do so. There’s nothing to be gained by winning this argument—and thereby pissing her off—because each publishing house has its own standards. If all the other historical novels the publisher has produced have no contractions, and your book is the only one that has ‘em, then readers will assume that you’re the one who is wrong. Do you really want to start that fight?

So grin and bear it.

And know that you were right, all along. The facts are on your side.

Contractions did, indeed, exist during the Regency, and they knew how to use 'em, too!

Amy Corwin


Anonymous said...

I've encountered resistance to contractions writing historical fiction about Native Americans from about 1,000 AD. People seem to have this rather quaint notion that the "pure Indian" spoke some kind of pure language devoid of contractions.

I don't believe that for a minute. It's human nature to shorten language. We'd do it more if people understood us.

I appreciate your resistance to the use of contractions for certain peoples at certain periods of time.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Amy,

Very interesting. I have always felt that you needed a certain amount of contractions, otherwise the conversation sounds stilted. so, now I feel vindicated.



Mary Ricksen said...

I'm with Margaret!! Gotta have them to sound right!

Tracey Devlyn said...


Thanks for the informative post!!


Donna Hatch said...

I tend to write contractions in speech but leave the narrative without. I guess that's just my style, but I'm glad to see these examples of contractions and it may help me loosen up a bit ;-) However, I know shan't and 'tis have a very historical feel so I do use them whenever I can.
Thanks for the great post!

Linda Banche said...

Good grief, we're all different. I'm just the opposite of Donna. I write contractions in the narrative, and don't write them in speech. AARGH!