Monday, March 1, 2021

Austen and Contractions

This post was originally written while I was finishing Darcy in Wonderland, an odd little volume that is part Pride and Prejudice sequel, set twenty some years after the Darcy’s marriage, and part pure mashup with Alice in Wonderland. It was a marvellous opportunity to work with my incredibly talented little sister, Katy Wiedemann, who created beautiful illustrations for the book. For the cover image she used David Rintoul as her model, who played Darcy in the 1980 BBC mini-series, with a little James Dean thrown in. Isn’t she incredible? Colin Firth's features weren't chiselled enough for her liking. The pigeon with which he is conversing is Mrs. Bennet.

One of the great challenges I encountered writing this story was trying to combining the styles of two very different writers. This proved a particular problem when it comes to the thorny issue of contractions. Over the years, I’ve been told by more than one person that Jane Austen never used contractions. This is not exactly true, though her use of contractions is very limited. Lewis Carroll, on the other hand, uses contractions nonstop. I compromised between the two by limiting the characters from Austen’s world to her contractions, letting Carroll’s characters pretty much run wild (it would have been impossible to fight this, as that is just what Carroll’s characters do), and I split the difference on Alice. As a result of this process, I produced a rather handy list of contractions Austen did use in her six major novels and those she did not (several do appear more frequently in her earlier works). Let’s start with those she definitely never uses:

aren’t, couldn’t, could’ve, didn’t, doesn’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d, he’ll, he’s, how’d, isn’t, it’d, it’ll, it’s, let’s, mightn’t, might’ve, mustn’t, must’ve, needn’t, oughtn’t, she’d, she’ll, she’s, shouldn’t, should’ve, that’d, that’ll, there’s, they’ll, they’re, wasn’t, we’ll, we’re, weren’t, we’ve, what’s, where’s, who’d, who’ll, who’s, wouldn’t, would’ve, you’d, you’ll, you’re, you’ve

Now let’s discuss what is far more interesting: those contractions Austen does utilize and why.

There are only three she uses fairly regularly: don’t, ’tis, and won’t (note that ’tis never occurs in Persuasion, while making a regular appearance in all five of the other novels).

There are three more that appear a handful of times in the novels: can’t, I’ll, and shan’t/sha’nt (note that the latter is only ever used by Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Bennet, and Miss Bates).

Then there are those that appear very infrequently. Word geek that I am, I find this highly compelling. Usually, these contractions reflect a character’s lack of education or refinement. Let’s take a look at them in context.


Amanda Bozer as Fanny Dashwood, 1981.
This archaic contraction occurs a bit more frequently than the others on this list, but really only in Sense and Sensibility, in which it is used five times.

Anne Steele (she uses it twice – also see notes below on “I’m”):

“Lord! my dear, you are very modest. I an’t the least astonished at it in the world, for I have often thought of late, there was nothing more likely to happen.”

Mrs. Jennings:

“Mind me, now, if they an’t married by Mid-summer.”

“The Colonel is a ninny, my dear; because he has two thousand a-year himself, he thinks that nobody else can marry on less. Take my word for it, that, if I am alive, I shall be paying a visit at Delaford Parsonage before Michaelmas; and I am sure I sha’nt go if Lucy an’t there.”

And, curiously, Fanny Dashwood:

Perhaps Fanny thought for a moment that her mother had been quite rude enough,–for, colouring a little, she immediately said, 
“They are very pretty, ma’am–an’t they?” But then again, the dread of having been too civil, too encouraging herself, probably came over her, for she presently added, “Do you not think they are something in Miss Morton’s style of painting, Ma’am?–She does paint most delightfully!–How beautifully her last landscape is done!”

Fanny is a far more socially elevated character than the other two, and I think Austen very deliberately puts this contraction into her speech in order to display Fanny’s internal coarseness, despite her fashionable trappings.

The only other time “an’t” occurs is in Emma, where it is used by Mrs. Elton when speaking to Jane Fairfax. She is a character rather like Fanny, when you stop to consider their personalities. Both are petty and self-absorbed. It is also possible that both ladies saying ‘an’t’ is some kind of affectation, perhaps a modish slang. If so, I think it is clear Austen does not approve of such verbal laziness.

“Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read—-mum! a word to the wise.–I am in a fine flow of spirits, an’t I? But I want to set your heart at ease as to Mrs. S.–My representation, you see, has quite appeased her.”

Edit: A careful reader pointed out that it also appears in Persuasion. I missed it because it is spelled "a'n't." Wow Jane! We have Charles Musgrove to thank for this utterance, and he uses it when adopting a childish demeanour to interact with his mother:

"Well, mother, I have done something for you that you will like. I have been to the theatre, and secured a box for to-morrow night. A'n't I a good boy? I know you love a play; and there is room for us all. It holds nine. I have engaged Captain Wentworth. Anne will not be sorry to join us, I am sure. We all like a play. Have not I done well, mother?"

Beautiful! Many thanks to Valborg Anderson for catching this one. 


Toni Collette as Harriet Smith, 1996.
Used four times, and in a rather broad set of circumstances. Anne Steele, who uses more contractions than any other character in Austen, says it once:

“Good gracious! (giggling as she spoke) I’d lay my life I know what my cousins will say, when they hear of it. They will tell me I should write to the Doctor, to get Edward the curacy of his new living. I know they will; but I am sure I would not do such a thing for all the world.–‘La!’ I shall say directly, ‘I wonder how you could think of such a thing? I write to the Doctor, indeed!'”

It occurs twice in Mansfield Park, always spoken by the Portsmouth Prices. First by William:

“I should like to see you dance, and I’d dance with you if you would, for nobody would know who I was here, and I should like to be your partner once more.”

And then later in the story by his father, who uses courser language than any other character in Austen:

“But, by G–! if she belonged to me, I’d give her the rope’s end as long as I could stand over her. A little flogging for man and woman too would be the best way of preventing such things.”

It is also used once in Emma, by Harriet Smith:

“Will you read the letter?” cried Harriet. “Pray do. I’d rather you would.”


Austen only uses it three times, and just in her first two novels. Anne Steele says it in Sense and Sensibility, twice in the same sentence! Anne’s frequent use of contractions is definitely a reflection of her lack of education and low status, and this paragraph is loaded with them:

“Nay, my dear, I’m sure I don’t pretend to say that there an’t. I’m sure there’s a vast many smart beaux in Exeter; but you know, how could I tell what smart beaux there might be about Norland; and I was only afraid the Miss Dashwoods might find it dull at Barton, if they had not so many as they used to have. But perhaps you young ladies may not care about the beaux, and had as lief be without them as with them. For my part, I think they are vastly agreeable, provided they dress smart and behave civil. But I can’t bear to see them dirty and nasty. Now there’s Mr. Rose at Exeter, a prodigious smart young man, quite a beau, clerk to Mr. Simpson, you know, and yet if you do but meet him of a morning, he is not fit to be seen.–I suppose your brother was quite a beau, Miss Dashwood, before he married, as he was so rich?”

Lydia Bennet is the other character to utilize “I’m”:

“Oh!” said Lydia stoutly, “I am not afraid; for though I am the youngest, I’m the tallest.”


Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs. Jennings, 1995.
Only used once by Mrs. Jennings, another great peddler of contractions:

“Oh, Lord! I am sure your mother can spare you very well, and I do beg you will favour me with your company, for I’ve quite set my heart upon it. Don’t fancy that you will be any inconvenience to me, for I shan’t put myself at all out of my way for you.

How d’ye

Bit of a weird one, and akin to our modern “how’d you.” I definitely think she is representing colloquial speech with this contraction. It is always used in greeting. John Thorpe says it in Northanger Abbey:

“Make haste! make haste!” as he threw open the door– “put on your hat this moment — there is no time to be lost — we are going to Bristol. –How d’ye do, Mrs. Allen?”

It is how John Knightley greets his brother in Emma (love this quote, by the way):

This had just taken place and with great cordiality, when John Knightley made his appearance, and “How d’ye do, George?” and “John, how are you?” succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other.

Miss Bates also uses it:

“How d’ ye do?–how d’ye do?–Very well, I thank you. So obliged to you for the carriage last night. We were just in time; my mother just ready for us. Pray come in; do come in. You will find some friends here.”

And Admiral Croft says it in Persuasion, when he is walking with Anne:

“But here comes a friend, Captain Brigden; I shall only say, `How d’ye do?’ as we pass, however. I shall not stop. ‘How d’ye do?’ Brigden stares to see anybody with me but my wife.”


Romola Garai & Johnny Lee Miller as Emma
Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, 2009.
This one is very interesting. It only occurs twice in Austen. Both times are in Emma, and both occur in the same chapter (12). I have to wonder if this wasn’t an editing oversight on Austen’s part, because instead of the “that’s” being dropped by side characters of questionable educational background, here it is used by our hero and heroine. The other theory I have is that both characters are flustered when they use the contraction. Perhaps it reflects their state of minds? Another thought is that it indicates ease with their companions, resulting in a relaxation of formality. It is used first by Emma ...

“That’s true,” she cried—”very true. Little Emma, grow up a better woman than your aunt. Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited.

... and then later by Mr. Knightley, when he is trying to redirect the dinner conversation away from the subject of Mr. Perry’s medical opinions:

“True, true,” cried Mr. Knightley, with most ready interposition— “very true. That’s a consideration indeed.—But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty.”


Only appears once in Austen, in Sense and Sensibility. Servants don’t usually have much of a voice in Austen, but the Dashwood’s Thomas has quite a speech at the end of the novel. It is there he drops the “they’d”:

“I happened to look up as I went by the chaise, and so I see directly it was the youngest Miss Steele; so I took off my hat, and she knew me and called to me, and inquired after you, ma’am, and the young ladies, especially Miss Marianne, and bid me I should give her compliments and Mr. Ferrars’s, their best compliments and service, and how sorry they was they had not time to come on and see you, but they was in a great hurry to go forwards, for they was going further down for a little while, but howsever, when they come back, they’d make sure to come and see you.”


Daisy Haggard as Miss Steele, 2008.
We wrap up where we began, with Anne Steele:

“Dr. Davies was coming to town, and so we thought we’d join him in a post-chaise; and he behaved very genteelly, and paid ten or twelve shillings more than we did.”

So what have we learned from all this? While some contractions are broadly used by all manner of characters in Austen, her use of them is highly selective, usually chosen to highlight lack of education, some other character fault, or informality. I hope this exercise is useful to my fellow writers, and that it provides a heightened awareness in readers of Austen’s careful choice of language.

Thanks for joining me on this exploration into some of the less obvious aspects of Austen’s writing style.


  1. Great article, very interesting, Alexa!
    I believe Austen deliberately used certain words or contraptions, as you mentioned here, to give her characters a particular trait. It certainly does not seem random when you analyse it has you have done so well in this article.
    I have noticed the use of "La" as well which is used by Lydia and Lucy Steel f.eks. but Elizabeth, Anne, Fanny etc never use it.

    I loved this, thank you for sharing it with us!

    1. My pleasure, Elin! Yes, I think Austen's feelings about "la" are probably much like Marianne Dashwood's regarding "setting your cap" at someone. I'm glad you enjoyed this.

  2. Years ago, an AHA regular, JanetR, wrote a post with a list of all the uses of contractions in Austen. I think she missed some of the odd ones you caught, but it was an extensive list. E.g., there were only 15 contractions in all of P&P. Her conclusion was that in Austen's work, they were typically only used by lower class or ill-mannered characters (e.g., Lydia and Mrs. Bennet get the honours for the most in P&P). That's good enough reason for me to avoid them in my writing! Great article!

    1. Thank you, Suzan! Do you know if the post is still up? I’d love to read it. I’ll search. Full confession, my main motivation in writing this was originally to justify my use of a few, select contractions in all my books. Sometimes they just feel so much more natural in dialogue, but you have to be careful with them.

    2. I messaged you and sent you my Word document of the post.

    3. More...This and the list by JanetR give good guidance on how to use contractions in your work if you choose to use them. So go ahead!

    4. Ben’t. Ha ha! That’s a great one that made JanetR’s list because she surveyed all of Austen’s works, including the letters!!!! Amazing that this list does t directly correspond to the contractions she regularly use in the novels. According to JanetR, she uses the following in her letters:

      Don’t, Can’t, It’s, Shan’t, Won’t

      Don’t is the only one she uses more than once. 12 times! Fascinating stuff.

      Ben’t (be not) is used by Nanny in The Watsons. I could pour over this for hours, but in the spirit of Carroll: “The time! The time! Who’s got the time?” Thank you for sharing!

  3. Thanks, Alexa. You are a word geek! It makes me appreciate your writing even more.

    1. A proud word geek! I only wish I were a better one. Thank you so much, Laurel Ann.

  4. Oo, I love posts like this, really interesting. Thanks for doing all the work to find this info!

    1. My pleasure, Ceri! I’m thrilled you enjoyed it.

  5. Interesting! Contractions are something I think about when I write, but I'm not always as good as I should be about using them carefully. Bravo on some really useful and detailed work.

    1. Thanks, Riana. It keeps coming up, so the work kind of did itself. I’m glad this interested you.