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What is a Contraction?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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A contraction is a written form in which a number of words are combined into a new word. Usually, they form when two words are used in conjunction with high frequency, although some languages, such as French, make use of them to keep the spoken sound of a sentence flowing.

In English, contractions are usually represented with an apostrophe to replace the omitted letters that join the words together. They are often made of a pronoun followed by a form of the verb to be, such as I followed by am merging into I’m. This is related to the concept of the portmanteau, a word that combines two words directly, such as humongous as a combination of huge and enormous, or infotainment from information and entertainment. In the past, English made common use of many more contractions than in the modern age, in which portmanteaus appear to be the preferred construction.

Some common examples in modern English include can’t for cannot, isn’t for is not, it’s for it is, I’m for I am, he’s for he is, he’s for he has, haven’t for have not, I’ll for I will, and I’d for I would.

Sometimes, contractions can be ambiguous, such as in the case of He is and He was, both of which are represented by He’s, in which case, context serves to show which formation is intended. Some have their roots in historical words or spellings no longer in use, and so seem a bit strange when considered as combined words. Won’t is a good example of this — the expected combination being something more like willn’t as a contraction of will and not. In fact, historically, the construction was wynnot and later wonnot, which became contracted to wo’n’t and later the modern won’t.

Another example of this historical root for a construction can be found in the non-standard term ain’t. This word began as a contraction of the words am and not, producing amnot. This word was generalized to both are not and is not in the Cockney dialect of English. Because of its difficult pronunciation, it eventually evolved to the modern pronunciation and spelling of ain’t, and because of its association with the Cockney dialect — considered a sub-standard dialect by many in English grammar circles — it was relegated to non-standard English.

Some contractions have made their way in from older phrases, and many people don't even know that they are a combination of words. Example of this include o’clock for the phrase of the clock, fo’c’s’le for forecastle, or ne’er-do-well for never do well. Older contractions have also fallen out of common usage, though they are easily found in the work of older English authors such as Shakespeare or Milton. Examples of these include e’en for even, ’twas for it was, and o’er for over. Many of these early forms may also have served the purpose of changing commonly used words and phrases from two syllables to one, helping the author to match a set meter.

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Discussion Comments

By brendan — On Apr 08, 2008

Ain't is most certainly a word, albeit one that is used primarily outside of formal writing and speech. It has been with us at least since the 17th century, originally as a contraction for "am not", as an't. It is now used to also mean "is not", with about the same frequency.

The reason it is considered "less of a word" than other contractions really has less to do with its formal structure, and more to do with a series of concerted attacks that began at the beginning in the 19th century - when most of these absurd grammatical prohibitions arose. It quickly fell out of vogue among the "well-educated" classes, and so became a mark of a lower-class speech.

The argument used by most prescriptivists against "ain't" is that its constituent parts are not obvious, and therefore it violates some non-existent rule of contractions - that the apostrophe must replace a literal letter or series of letters. Whether feigning ignorance or under the burden of actual ignorance, prescriptivists from the 19th century on have failed to acknowledge its well-recorded history as a contraction of "am not" and "is not", dating back more than a hundred years before the first objections against the word were raised.

One wonders whether these same prescriptivists consider "won't" a word or not, as it bears just about as much connection to "will not" as "ain't" does to "am not" - arguably more so.

Hopefully that answers your question! Next time someone tells you ain't ain't a word, tell them it has been for more than three-hundred years, and why should it be any less of a word than won't!

By knittingpro — On Apr 06, 2008

One interesting contraction is "ain't" - which many people say isn't a word. Why is that less of a word than any other contraction?

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