God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Contractions

The issue of contractions in English translations has come up again recently, so I thought a look at how contractions work in English might be a good idea.

Spoken English

Spoken languages tend to obey a general rule that less is more, or, more specifically, the shortest form possible is generally the only grammatical form. So if there are two forms, one short and one long, a speaker needs a reason to use the longer one.

For example:

– Where’s Bill?

– I saw him yesterday.

In my dialect, there are two ways to pronounce “him,” namely, him and im. The only natural way to say “I saw him yesterday” is to contract “saw him” into “saw’im.” The “less is more” rule is why “saw him” sounds unnatural.

However the shorter form can’t be used when it’s conjoined. (I’ll explain why below.) So:

– Where are Bill and Mary?

– I saw him and her yesterday.

There’s no way to change “saw him and her” into *”saw’im and’er.” It’s just not Enlgish.

Similarly, “I am” can only be pronounced “I’m” in most circumstances in English, but, again, there are cases where “I’m” is impossible. (For example, *”he’s taller than I’m.”)


The shorter words “‘im,” “‘er,” “‘m,” etc. are clitics, a term more familiar to students of Romance languages than of English. But English has them too. And, in fact, like all clitics, they obey three general rules:

1. They can’t be conjoined (combined with “and,” “or,” etc.).

2. They can’t be emphasized or contrasted.

3. They need something to latch on to.

Rule (1) is what goes wrong with *”I saw’im and’er.” Rule (3) is why *”He’s taller than I’m” is so terrible in English. And Rule (2) prevents “Oh, Bill? I saw him sneaking into the cookie jar” from becoming *”…I saw‘im…”

(Some dialects of British English have a full word “im” which isn’t a clitic but rather the word “him” with a silent “h.” That’s different from (to) the clitic.)

Other impossible examples in English include *”he’s and always will be king” (Rule 1), *”he wasn’t known back then but he’s now” (Rule 2), and *”I know what you’re.”

Written English

Native speakers are often unaware of their own speech patterns, which may be why, for a long time, contracted spoken forms were written out in full. About 500 years ago, though, English printers starting using the apostrophe to indicate “missing letters,” which is to say, letters which might be written in a word but which are not pronounced (including, perhaps, the missing “e” in the now-defunct genitive ending “-es,” which may be why the “‘s” is used for possession today).

With some exceptions (“‘s” of possession, “o’clock,” etc.) the apostrophe came to be associated with speech, and then informality. For this reason it was frowned upon in early 20th century writing.

But English writing — at least in America — has seen a general trend toward informality. The word “whom” is practically dead. (Though even Fowler, many years ago, advised rewriting a sentence that called for “whom.”) The informal “preposition at the end of a sentence” used to be a sign of poor written English; now it’s common (e.g., “to whom are you speaking?” vs. “who are you talking to?”) And so forth.

Along with this trend, apostrophes and contractions have returned to written English.

So the use of the apostrophe is really a matter of spelling. When the words are read aloud, most people will pronounce “I will” as “I’ll” no matter how it’s spelled, just like they will pronounce “donut” (“doughnut”) the same way regardless of the spelling.

But because of it’s association with informality, the apostrophe is also a subtle yet powerful clue about the general nature of the text.


November 6, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , , ,


  1. Very interesting look at contractions, thanks!
    With regard to the contractions in the CEB, do you think the fact that many of the NT manuscripts we possess used abbreviations has any bearing on our use of contractions in translations? I understand that they are fundamentally different phenomena with different motivations, but I wonder if they signal something similar in terms of formality of a text?

    Comment by Ryan | November 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. I think that abbreviations are completely different than contractions.

    I also think that contractions can function differently in different cultures and across languages, so even if Greek abbreviations were the same as contractions, it still wouldn’t necessarily mean that we should use English contractions to represent them.

    Still, as a guess, contractions tend to correlate with informality in most languages, but perhaps tautologically so: If we saw a short-form that was formal we might not call it a contraction.

    Capturing the formality level of the original is one of the translator’s greatest challenges. In my opinion, most translations either end up with English prose that is much more formal than the Greek was, or with English poetry that is much less formal that the Greek was.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 6, 2009 | Reply

  3. […] one level, it seems reasonable. And there are even times when it’s true (I give some examples here). But it’s not a general […]

    Pingback by Too Much Emphasis « God Didn't Say That | December 21, 2009 | Reply

  4. Joel, I think your section on clitics is incorrect. A clitic is a morpheme that may attach to the end of other words but can’t appear by itself. ‘s is an example:

    The queen’s crown.
    The queen of England’s crown.

    In Nyungwe we have a clitic -mbo that means something like “also” and attaches to all sorts of things.

    Comment by David Ker | January 14, 2010 | Reply

    • Joel, I think your section on clitics is incorrect. A clitic is a morpheme that may attach to the end of other words but can’t appear by itself. ‘s is an example:

      It sounds like we agree. What part of my section on clitics seems wrong? One English example is ‘s, but ‘im and ‘er are also clitics. They attach to other words and can’t appear by themselves.

      As another example, consider that the answer to “who did you see?” cannot be the clitic “‘er.” It has to be the full pronoun “her.”

      Comment by Joel H. | January 14, 2010 | Reply

      • Nope. That’s different. You’re talking about elision. If the ‘im and ‘er couldn’t exist on its own it might be a clitic.

        Comment by David Ker | January 14, 2010

  5. Nope. That’s different. You’re talking about elision. If the ‘im and ‘er couldn’t exist on its own it might be a clitic.

    I don’t think it’s elision. If it were, “I saw’im an’er” for “I saw him and her” would be okay; it’s clearly not. The similar “I saw’im and gave’im a message” is just fine.

    The ‘im and ‘er cannot exist on their own, and they are not just phonologically reduced version of the longer pronouns. (There is a British dialect in which “him” is always “im” and “her” is always “er.” As I mentioned, that’s not what I’m talking about here.) We know because English (except for some dialects) doesn’t in general allow initial H’s to be dropped: just think how awful “I saw’erb” is for “I saw Herb.”

    Comment by Joel H. | January 14, 2010 | Reply

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