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I had joked with some friends when I first embarked on the brave new world of being a TA that surely some student would send me an email asking a question written like a text message. It was intended as a joke. An exaggeration. A situation that surely would not happen. And then I got an email last quarter asking about a question on the homework. “What do u mean…” began the student’s email. I had assumed it was a little joke to poke fun at my oldster sensibilities, so I ignored the curious spelling. Then a few days later I received another email from the same student. Same thing; you was once again replaced by u.

At first I was going to make this post just a diatribe in which I ranted at length about how academic emails call for a certain formality, how you look foolish when you don’t you an appropriate level of formality, how you need to turn off text-speak when you’re not composing a text message, and how text messaging is a bane to our preciously and precociously absurd spelling system (yes, it’s hard to learn, but it looks so cool sometimes). In short, I was going to be old and tell all the youngsters out there about how dumb they look when they don’t obey the little formalisms that all us oldsters consider so terribly important.

But then I thought better of it. After all, it’s already been said many other times, and to judge from my cousin’s insistent use of such contractions, these complaints don’t seem to sink in. And perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions by assuming that u is a result of laziness. There are a wide range of reasons why one might desire to type out you but find oneself only able to type u. For instance, perhaps the student’s parents had been killed by a runaway y-o combination and she can’t bring herself to type such a combination again. It could be that her keyboard lacks those keys. Or perhaps she is a militant simplified-spelling activist, fresh off of a hunger strike at Merriam-Webster HQ, and adamant in her belief that the silent y-o should be omitted.

And the more I think about it, really, what’s it matter anyway? Is English’s archaic spelling essential in some way to the language? Though I do love its idiosyncrasies, it would probably be better if English had spelling that better reflected its pronunciation.  And using u instead of you is shifting us closer to that.

All that having been said, my current opinion is that academic emails do call for a certain level of formality, even to an egalitarian descriptivist like me. Please, please, readers: don’t use text-speak when you email your TAs and professors. Add in those extra couple letters. We’re trying to teach you to at least look intelligent. (This is something I’ve mastered; I assume that being intelligent will follow.) Try not to remind us how often we fail.

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:

Kids today just can’t bare to declare something. That’s what the grammarians tell me. (We must, of course, ignore the decisiveness of a “no!” from kids asked if they want to play outside instead of in front of the Wii, which must be some sort of anomaly from these grammatic vacillators that are our youth.) Obviously, I am far too intimidated by the wilding of American youngsters to approach one of them and listen to its speech, so I am trusting that this is a well-researched opinion and not just some made-up rubbish like the rest of the grammarians’ claims.

The key feature that sets apart those who have the conviction necessary to say what they mean and the sort of unwashed masses who kinda can’t, like, just say something is the use of qualifying phrases like kind of, sort of, and like. (I’m going to ignore like because it is far too multi-faceted for the present post.) These qualifiers are perceived as recent bastardizations of proper English, used by the kids and the cool to sorta stick it to oldsters who are so uptight and categorical. You can tell they must be recent hipster slang because they’re written as contractions without apostrophes – which is the grammar equivalent of sticking a dunce cap on a phrase and making it sit in the corner.

Now let’s pretend for a second we’re famous and well-respected grammarians – Lynne Truss, William Safire, or your own personal hero – and create a narrative that fits our beliefs that kids use kind of and sort of all the time and real grown-ups almost never use them. One possibility is that kids today are more concerned with snark than content, so you have to always hedge to avoid piddling squabbles like:

“Yo dawg, that red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I don’t see no red car, but there is a slammin’ burgundy car over there.”
“Yeah, that’s the one I was talking about.”
“It’s not red, you colorblind flibbertygibbet. It’s burgundy.” (and so on…)

Compare to the obviously more genial conversation that hedges lead to:

“Yo dawg, that kinda red car over there is so the bomb.”
“Man, I think it’s more sorta burgundy.”
“It’s sorta red, kinda burgundy. Hard to say.”
“Yeah, guess so.” (handshake, or high fives exchanged in a friendly manner)

Of course, we must check to make sure that this narrative is supported by the facts of English usage. Alas, the story is — in truth — spun out of whole cloth. As it turns out, it is precisely us oldsters (or more precisely, our ancestors) who are to blame for introducing these hedges in the first place. Furthermore, the introduction of kind of and sort of proceeded by a slow, steady, — and, some hard-liners might say, pernicious — grammatical change, akin to those little puzzles where by changing one letter at a time you can convert CAT to DOG. (All credit for this is due to Whitney Tabor, who discussed this in a 1994 dissertation, and Rob Malouf, who discussed it in his book on mixed categories.)

It goes like this. You start with the undeniably grammatical construction a kind of, as in (1), where a kind of takes a noun phrase as its argument (e.g., awful torture):

(1) The trip to Irvine was a kind of awful torture.
(1′) I knowe that sorte of men ryght well [attested 1560]

This construction was in the language by Middle English, as shown by (1′). The next step (which I for one consider grammatical as well) is to let a kind of modify an adjective, yielding a sentence like (2):

(2) The trip to Irvine was a kind of fun – namely, the bad kind.
(2′) Its a fine ewnin but its a sort a caad [1790]

This was in place in the language by the start of the 19th century, although it may have been somewhat colloquial then, and has seemed to have died out in most dialects by now. After all, it’s an unstable transition state, an adverb with an article, so it’s no surprise that people would want to stabilize it. There’s two options: either revert to an adjective, which gets us right back to square (1), or drop the article. People started to drop the article by the mid-19th century, so that a kind of, which converts an adjective (e.g., fun) to a noun phrase (a kind of fun), becomes an pure adverb that merely modifies an adjective, as in (3):

(3) The trip to Irvine was kind of fun. I did get to see the widest highway segment in the U.S.
(3′) I was kind of provoked at the way you came up [1830]

You dang kids! Always ruining the language with your archaisms! Maybe the kids today do hedge their statements a lot, and maybe kind of and sort of are in part to blame. But they’ve got nearly two hundred years of usage by people like you and me and Dickens to draw these phrases from, and to justify their usage.  So maybe everyone ought to give them a pass.

Summary: kind of and sort of aren’t new things that only kids say. They were derived over time from the unquestionably acceptable usage a kind of X, where X can be just about any noun. In their current usage, kind/sort of have been around for almost 200 years, and even back then were being written as kind o’ and kinda as well.  And no less a personage than Charles Dickens (see usage 14d) used it in his writing. Perhaps they are informal, but they’re not ungrammatical.

My roommate asked me how to spell the first word of Till death do us part (for reasons that I don’t fully recall, but it definitely wasn’t because we were starting some odd sort of relationship). We agreed there were three possibilities:

til, till, ’til

I quickly responded that ’til was the logical choice, a truncation of until, with the missing un marked by an apostrophe. Open-and-shut case. Except that it wasn’t. It kept gnawing at me. Had I seen people use till in that context? Why would they do that? So I made the same mistake I often do, and I looked into exactly what the deal was. First off, let’s look at some proponents of each form:

‘Til Tuesday, Aimee Mann’s semi-pivotal 80s band
‘Til Death, Brad Garrett’s follow-up to Everybody Loves Raymond
Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America

Till Death Us Do Part, British sitcom that paved the way for All in the Family
From Dusk Till Dawn, movie featuring Salma Hayek dancing and (so it is rumored) some other plot as well.

(Til is hard to find attestations of — people seem to be pretty good at remembering to put apostrophes at the words when the first syllable is removed.) So why would anyone spell it till if it’s coming from until? Well, it turns out that till isn’t derived from untilTill and ’til are actually two different words with two different etymologies. Till is the earlier form, attested as early as 1330; Until is actually derived from till, not the other way around as in ’til (a backformation which showed up much later).  Both are common, so it’s up to you which one you like.  Till is commoner in Scotland, where it can be used like dative to in some situations, while ’til is commoner in the U.S.  Take your pick.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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