In a previous post about apostrophication, I asked why the contraction won’t for will not isn’t wo’n’t, with apostrophes in each position where letters have been elided. In so doing, I skirted the obvious and much harder question of where the devil that o comes from. Why is it won’t and not win’t or willn’t? I had hoped to avoid this, but I have been called out by a commenter on that previous post, who slags the usage patterns of English spellers:

Surely if won’t is derived from will not it should be Willn’t not Won’t. Won’t should be a word of its own in my oppinion even if it’s not at lease spell the thing correctly. The english language has become very lazy with apostrophes and spellings. It really bugs me.

Now, as the grammatical apologist I am, I have to disagree that English has become lazy with apostrophes and spellings. If anything, English spelling is getting more complicated as word pronunciations continue to slide away from what they were when our orthography got fixed back in the day. I think that we all deserve pats on the back for retaining the spelling knight after losing the silent velar fricative that once started the word, and for successfully mastering learning the various sound sequences that that master of disguise ough can hide (bough, trough, plough, through, tough, etc.). And anyway, it’s not the language that has gotten sloppy; it’s its practitioners. There remain well-established rules about apostrophes to distinguish singular and plural possessives, for instance, and for most contractions it’s pretty well set in stone where the apostrophes go — it’s just that people don’t always check their usages.

That said, let’s address the primary issue in this comment: why write won’t as a contraction of will not? Is it just that modern people are lazy? Or some consequence of the O and I keys abutting on a QWERTY keyboard? Nope. In fact, we’re not even asking the right question. The fact is that the question is wrong. Won’t is not a contraction of will not. It’s a contraction of woll not or wol not or wonnot.

Yes, back in the day it wasn’t yet set how to pronounce or write the modal verb that eventually came to us as will. The Oxford English Dictionary cites 33 different spellings just for the 1st/3rd person singular form, running the gamut from will to welle to ool to wol. Some of these usages were more scattered than others, and it seems like the big division eventually came down to will-type usages versus woll-type usages, which lasted into the mid-1800s before will cornered the modal market.

But while the correct form for will was still open for debate, people still had to be able to express the concept of negated futures (i.e., will not). Unsurprisingly, there were some pretty inventive ways of saying it, such as nillfrom which the term willy-nilly (literally meaning “will he, won’t he” in Middle English) is derived. Generally, though, speakers just added not after whatever form of will/woll/welle/ool they were using. This type of negation, used with the woll variant, led to the amalgam wonnot and eventually got further reduced orthographically to forms like wo’not or won’t.

So that gives us won’t as a contraction meaning the same as will not (and, you’ll note, the apostrophe is correctly placed to indicate omission of no from wonnot). Now why is it that won’t outlived woll and rose to prominence over the equally reasonable willn’t? I’d speculate that it’s because willn’t is a hard word to pronounce. Why would you strain yourself to pronounce a word ending with three consonants when you could pronounce a word that ends with only two? Willn’t does get attested; Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens liked it, and you’re welcome to too. But I would strongly advise against using it in situations where you don’t want people to think that you are a Victorian writer lost in the wrong century.

Summary: won’t doesn’t come from will not but rather from woll not, an alternate form that existed into the mid-1800s. Will muscled out woll, but won’t muscled out willn’t. Just another weird bit fact about English.


The Preposterous Apostrophes series as it stands: