Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Lee Mickelson brought up an interesting point in his comment on yesterday's post: double contractions. He seemed to think it was strange, but I would guess that it's fairly widespread, based on my own usage and those of other commenters. I was searching for a syntactic basis for allowing or disallowing a double contraction, when I realized that of course contractions have little or nothing to do with syntax or morphology, and everything to do with phonetics and frequency of use. Joan Bybee brings up the effect of token frequency on phonological and morphological reduction (as well as many other aspects of language) in her wonderful book Phonology and Language Use. Her point is that most exceptions, oddities, contractions, etc. in language are due to an extremeley high frequency of use. An example is that we tend to reduce words like every, camera, memory, and family, but not words like mammary, artillery, or homily, even though phonologically these sets of words are very similar.

We have contractions because we get tired of saying "can not" over and over again, or perhaps more exactly because people five hundred years ago did. This phonological reduction affects words like "not," "have," "would," "will," and not many others. However, there are certain rules for contractions. For instance, we would contract "Yes they are" to "Yes they're," because the verb is stressed. Lee's suggestion was that it seemed a bit extreme that he allowed something like "couldn't've" as well-formed. At first I saw no reason why this should be strange, it's merely an extended case of reduction with two words that are often redueced, as in "didn't" or "I've." But obviously there is a limit to how many words we are willing to contract onto the modal verb, because I don't think anyone would ever say "I'dn't've done that if I were you." My first instinct would be to say that the modal needs to be the stem for the contraction, but that's clearly not the case, since we use "I'd" all the time, e.g., "I'd have gone to the store" for "I would have gone to the store."

My question is (and I don't have an answer), what are the rules for this? Do they exist at all? As hard as I looked, I couldn't find any reason to alternate between "He's not going" and "He isn't going." They have exactly the same meaning/perlocutionary force/anything you can measure. So what exactly are the rules for contractions?


Alex said...

I think you're right -- semantic emphasis has a great deal to do with what gets contracted, just as where you place the accent in a word or in a sentence affects which syllables/words are unaccented and de-emphasized.

"Yes, they are," in the sentence "Yes, they are beautiful, aren't they?" stays uncontracted. But "Yes, they are" becomes "Yes, they're" in the sentence "Yes, they're going to be in the World Series."

Beyond that, I think "I'dn't've" doesn't work because standard expectations of vowels permits a maximum of two contractions in a row: "I'd've" or "wouldn't've" but not "I'dn't've."

Micah said...

I can think of a reason to pick "He's not going" over "He isn't going." The former has fewer syllables and theoretically takes less effort and time to pronounce. And, let's be honest, in our mile-a-minute workaday existence, we deserve to cut all the corners we possibly can from language. Also, we deserve a hot juicy burger, apparently.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

perhaps i found it so strange because it is quite rare in writing (at least that i've read). i don't know if alex is saying the sentence "yes, they are beautiful, aren't they?" can't be contracted, but i certainly could accept a contracted form, especially if the yes is dropped-- which to me doesn't affect the stress, because you'd still say "they are beautiful, aren't they?" without contracting but "they're beautiful, aren't they?" with contraction.

linguistlessons said...

I think Alex (and myself in the original post) was referring to when the "are" is stressed for a specific reason. For instance, if I said "Those flowers are beautiful," you could reply "They ARE beautiful, aren't they?" but I seriously doubt anyone would reply "They're beautiful, aren't they?"