Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo: How long have you been in this country?
Officer Ziva David: Why?
DiNozzo: Well, you've never heard of gypsy cabs, you don't use contractions. Assimilate already.
David: What are contraptions? . . . You are so prejudiced.
DiNozzo: I am not. I'm not! By the way, that's a contraction: I'm. You should try it sometime.
(Michael Weatherly and Cote de Pablo in "Designated Target." NCIS, 2007)
As DiNozzo's sayin', Americans love to clip and contract, specially in everyday speech. (One way to identify bad guys, space aliens, and academics--in the movies, at least--is by their general reluctance to use contractions.)
As our writing becomes increasingly colloquial (think texting), contractions are showing up more often in print. And these days, only the stuffiest style guides outlaw contractions altogether. Most, like the AP Stylebook, simply warn against "excessive use" in more formal kinds of writing.
If for some reason you're troubled by this recent proliferation of contracted forms, be glad you didn't live in the 17th century. At that time, in the words of editor William Gifford, printers habitually "deformed" texts with "barbarous contractions," lopping off letters without much regard for consistency or sense.
To show there's some degree of logic to current ways of contracting words, we've put together a few notes. Here's the first installment.
- The Contractive Apostrophe
In telescoped words and phrases (doesn't, there's, sou'wester), the apostrophe marks the spot where one or more letters have been omitted--not necessarily where words have been joined.
The Oxford Style Manual points out that shan't (for shall not) "has only one apostrophe" (a century ago it was spelled sha'n't ). But then anybody who uses the word shan't probably already knows this. (If, like George Bernard Shaw, you're in favor of eliminating contractive apostrophes--"uncouth bacilli" Shaw called them--see Should the Apostrophe Be Abolished?)
- Multiple Contractions
They may look odd in print, but certain multiple contractions--such as I'd've (or I'd'a) and wouldn't've--are fairly common in speech (e.g., "If I'd've told you the real reason, you probably wouldn't've come back with me").
Under the category of rarities, there are a few doubly and even triply contracted nautical terms, like bo's'n (short for boatswain) and fo'c's'le (a variant of forecastle)--words that landlubbers can probably live without. (So that this flurry of apostrophes doesn't provoke undue enthusiasm for the mark, let me remind you of the stigma attached to the greengrocer's apostrophe.)
- Contracting Not
The contracted form of not (n't) can be attached to finite forms of the auxiliaries be, do, and have, though amn't (mainly Scottish and Irish) is extremely rare--unlike the unfairly disparaged ain't.
The n't form can also be attached to most of the modal auxiliaries (can't, couldn't, mustn't, shouldn't, won't, wouldn't), but you won't hear many Americans saying mayn't or (again) shan't.
- Ambiguous Contractions
Most contractions ending in 'd and 's are ambiguous: 'd can represent either had or would, and 's can represent either has or is. All the same, the meaning of these contractions is usually clear from the context: "Sam's finished his term paper"; "Sam's dead."
More About Contractions: