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 | , , , , | 7 Comments