True Grit isn't true

« previous post | next post »

It isn't linguistically true, at least. David Fried writes:

What’s with the movie convention of representing 19th century American speech as lacking contractions? I was just enjoying the new version of “True Grit” by the Coen brothers—in fact it’s been a long time since I had so much fun at a movie. As I figure it the action is set in 1878. Much of the pleasure of the movie is the oddly formal and elaborate diction of the characters, taken straight from the Charles Portis novel. I actually find a lot of it true to my conception of the period, if rather stylized, except for the absurdity of pronouncing all contracted auxiliaries in full. Ethan Coen was specifically asked about this in a Newsweek review, and replied rather ambiguously “We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.”

I haven't seen True Grit yet, and so I don't know whether it really "pronounces all contracted auxiliaries in full". In the Newsweek interview that David cites, there's no elaboration beyond the quoted sentence:

Q: Did people actually not talk with contractions at that time?

Ethan: We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.

Charles Portis originally published "True Grit" as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post in 1968, and in somewhat changed form as a book. The story is narrated in the first person by Mattie Ross as an old woman in 1928, describing her adventures many years earlier at the age of fourteen.

To start with, it's not the case that the 1968 Portis novel represents its characters as speaking entirely without contractions. One counterexample among many, from page 19:

He said, "Well I killed the wrong man and that is why I am here. If I had killed the man I meant to I don't believe I would have been convicted."

These two sentences have uncontracted "that is", "I had", and "would have", but contracted "don't". The treatment of other contractable verbs is also variable. Thus on p. 61

He said, "If I'm going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars. I have figured out that much."

And on p. 180

"That's very well!" said Lucky Ned Pepper. "Do you advise me to kill her?"

For some other examples of this variable treatment, compare

Rooster said, "I bet it does. Set right still and it won't bleed so bad."

"No, you won't," said I. "This man will not let you have your way. He is your boss and you must do as he tells you."

She must have seen the dismay on my face for she added, "It will be all right. Grandma Turner will not mind. She is used to doubling up. She will not even know you are there, sweet."

"No sir, not me. Never. A man will not work for a woman, not unless he has clabber for brains."

Is this degree of variation (whatever it turns out to be in quantitative terms) an accurate representation of 19th-century American speech patterns? Or was Portis using an exaggerated (if variable) lack of contraction as a way to project the personality of Mattie Ross, an elderly woman whose strong notions of right and wrong may have included some prescriptive feelings about contractions? As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage explains,

Won't was among the contracted and truncated forms that Joseph Addison attacked in The Spectator on 4 August 1711. It seems to have been under something of a cloud, as far as the right-thinkers were concerned, for more than a century afterward. This did not, of course, interfere with its employment, and it was common enough to enjoy the distinction of being damned in the same breath as ain't in an address delivered before the Newburyport (Mass.) Female High School in December 1846 [..] The speaker termed both "absolutely vulgar."

What about the current movie version? Does it really avoid contractions entirely, or limit them even more than Portis did? Would such contractionless speech really be an accurate reflection of the way Americans talked in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1870s?

I don't know what Portis intended, and I don't know what the Coen brothers did. But I know that that informal American speech in the 1870s was far from contractionless, and in fact I suspect that it had roughly the same proportion of contractions as it does today. Therefore, what Portis (and the Coens?) did was either false archaism or poetic truth — or both.

For some background on the development of contractions, I'll quote Barren Brainerd, "The contractions of not: A historical note", Journal of English Linguistics 22, 1989:

In this essay I have tried to outline the progress of contracted not from its first explicit appearance at the beginning of the seventeenth century in monosyllabic forms through its linguistically productive phase in the eighteenth to its general acceptance in the nineteenth. There is no concrete evidence for its existence before the beginning of the sixteenth century–at least among literate users of the language–and some evidence that it evolved at around that time from intermediate, non-contracted, and partially contracted portmanteau forms like cannot and the now obsolete wonnot, shannot, and donnot. From the dramatic evidence presented here it would appear that fully contracted not originated among speakers of nonstandard English, later to be appropriated by the educated classes. The salient feature in the above discussion is the extraordinary productivity of the form both among standard and nonstandard speakers.

What does "general acceptance in the nineteenth [century]" mean, specifically? Being a quantitative sort of person, I decided to try a little textual Breakfast Experiment™ (OK, it's dinner time, but anyhow.)

Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer (published, conveniently, in 1876) has 58 instances of won't, and just one of will not — in the author's preface:

Although my book is intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls, I hope it will not be shunned by men and women on that account, for part of my plan has been to try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.

There are 223 instances of don't, against just one instance of do not, which occurs in a context that is not altogether irrelevant to True Grit:

There is no school in all our land where the young ladies do not feel obliged to close their compositions with a sermon; and you will find that the sermon of the most frivolous and the least religious girl in the school is always the longest and the most relentlessly pious.

(Yes, I know that some instances of don't are third person singular, substituting for does not rather than do not. And I should really distinguish between dialogue and narration, as Henning Makholm observes in the comments. The current experiment is crude enough that I think it's reasonable to ignore such things for now.)

For these cases of not-contraction, it would hard for a modern novel to swing any more strongly in the pro-contraction direction. Looking at a couple of instances of is-contraction, we find that Tom Sawyer has 226 instances of it's, and 44 of it is (84% contraction); 197 instances of that's, as against 9 of that is (96% contraction). These are a bit more balanced, though still strongly weighted in favor of contraction.

How do these numbers stack up against a more modern novel? Picking one more or less at random, let's take a look at James Lee Burke's 2008 Swan Peak. Looking at not-contraction first, Burke's novel has 27 instances of won't versus 1 of will not; and about 319 instances of don't versus 7 instances of do not. Though the comparison to Tom Sawyer is not clearly distinct from chance variation, both changes are in the direction of a lower frequency of contraction, not a higher one.

In a similar sample of two cases of is-contraction, Swan Peak has about 255 instances of it's, and 26 of it is (91% contraction, as opposed to 84% in Tom Sawyer); and about 179 instances of that's, versus 9 of that is (95% contraction, as opposed to 96% in Tom Sawyer).

So to sum up, the 2008 novel has a lower empirical frequency of contraction in three out of the four cases checked. Obviously, a credible investigation would need to look at larger number of books from both periods, and should also check a larger number of contractions, and distinguish between dialogue and narration, and so on. But I take these numbers as zeroth-order support for the hypothesis that rates of contraction in vernacular literature (and presumably in everyday speech) have not increased over the past 140 years.

[When I say "about N instances", I'm extrapolating from the limited of 100 hits that Kindle gives. Thus in the case of Swan Peak's count for don't, the fact that Kindle found 100 hits in the first 2165 "locations", out of a total of 6898 "locations" in the book, means that there should be about 100*6898/2165 = 318.6 hits in the whole book. The only ways I've found to improve on this method are quite time-consuming and thus inappropriate for the Breakfast Experiment modality.]

I can't do exactly the same sort of check on True Grit, because there's no Kindle version, and the Google Books version is the "snippet view" mode that only reports the number of pages with hits. But using page-counts as a crude proxy for word-sequence counts, we find the following:

contracted uncontracted % contracted
won't/will not 5 9 36%
don't/do not 12 8 60%
it's/it is 0 14 0%
that's/that is 2 12 14%

Comparing contraction percentages in the three works:

Tom Sawyer
Swan Peak True Grit
won't/will not 98% 96% 36%
don't/do not 100% 98% 60%
it's/it is 84% 91% 0%
that's/that is 96% 95% 14%

So True Grit (the novel) has definitely got a lower frequency of contractions than the other two works, even though it's not in fact contraction-free; and this pattern is not a true picture of the 1870s southern or south-midland vernacular that its characters (like Mark Twain) presumably spoke.

If True Grit (the remake) has an even lower frequency of contractions, its picture of "how people talked in the period" is even less true, at least from the perspective of mere historical fact.

[Update — Geoff Pullum reminds me that while "it's" and "that's" are indeed contractions, there are good arguments for treating "don't" and "won't" as irregular inflected forms.  It remains true that a speaker or writer has a choice between (for example) "will not" and "won't", so the diachronic and sociolinguistic discussion is not crucially affected by this distinction (though perhaps it helps to explain some of the differences in the relative frequency of choices).]

[More here.]


  1. bodywallet said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    i seen the movie on xmas day and seem to remember it was the mr. le beef character who skipped contractions more than mr. cogburn. couldn't be sure though.

    also, some of the non-contracted lines sounded forced, in the same way that mr. clooney sounded every now and again in 'o brother where art thou'. trying to nail the period a little to precisely maybe. (?)

    side note, in general it was a pretty mouthy movie — and it was so densely consistently cowboy-clever that it almost got a tad tiresome, dialogue-wise. lots of excellent words though, the opening courtroom scene is fabulous.

  2. Murray Smith said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    I was aware of this question while watching the movie and so happened to notice one contraction. There could have been more, of course, but there was certainly one.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:22 pm

    False archaism (if that's what it is) may be adopted as a way to avoid putting anachronistically modern language into the mouths of 19th century characters. I suspect the avoidance of contractions may be modeled on the King James Bible, either because 19th century Americans are thought to have sounded like Jacobean clerics, or simply because the Bible's language can't possibly be accused of sounding 20th or 21st century.

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    The prevalence of contractions in Tom Sawyer is even more noted if one restricts oneself to spoken dialogue; the narrator uses a significantly more literary register than the characters do. For example, every instance of "it's" in the book is in dialogue. There are plenty of "it is" in the narration that could grammatically have been contracted, but most instances of "it is" in spoken lines cannot contract because of stress (and each of the two or three arguable exceptions can easily be read as emphasis anyway).

  5. Tané Tachyon said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

    I remember the Mad Magazine parody of the original movie talking about this, but when I just looked through my old Mads in the garage I couldn't find it, so I can't quote it.

  6. Anon321 said,

    December 29, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    The dearth of contractions in the film caught my attention, too. After noticing it, I counted two contractions — but I certainly could've missed others.

  7. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    There's another reason to use fewer contractions in dialog than to present authenticity. I have noticed that some writers use this as a way to give the impression of slower, methodical speech (at least that's what I think they are doing). It's not so much to render the exact speech forms that the "real" speakers would have used, but to render the rhythmic impression that the author thinks you would get from hearing the characters speak. Kind of like using metaphor to describe a thing, I guess.

    (I do it sometimes, myself, but I only thought about it when I caught Lars Eighner advising new writers to avoid contractions because it was supposedly somehow more correct. I told him that he didn't avoid contractions to be more correct, he did it to try to make people hear his characters better. I think it works better than the usual way of rendering workign class speech, where people throw apostrophes all over the place to indicate elided sounds whether or not they are actually elided or wbhether or not it's actually unusual to elide them. It's not an accurate rendition fo speech, but it can be a good representation of rhythm, I think, sometimes)

  8. Rubrick said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 5:32 am

    I consider it a trademark of Coen brothers' films that characters often do not seem to talk quite like normal human beings. I find that, somewhat paradoxically, this makes them tremendously absorbing. (One thing Coen characters almost never do is talk like Hollywood movie characters. I never know what they're going to say next.)

    When I saw True Grit I wondered whether the contraction deficit was inherited from the novel or was a Coenism, but didn't research it further.

  9. Justin said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 6:17 am

    Contrasting these forms in the Google Ngram Viewer gives a very different picture …

    don't, donnot, do not
    can't, cannot, can not
    won't, wonnot, will not
    shan't, shannot, shall not

    I notice: The uncontracted forms consistently dwarf the contractions, except in the case of "cannot". The other intermediate contractions only seem to ever be used in republishings of works even older than 1820. Any explanation for this discrepancy?

    [(myl) In the first place, the treatment of apostrophes in the Google n-gram corpus (or in the indexing of that corpus) is screwed up. Thus the Google viewer estimates frequencies for don't that start around .02 per million, in the early 19th century, and rise to about .1 per million by 2000. (That's .0000020% and .0000100%, in the viewer's strikingly inapt choice of scale.) In contrast, the COHA corpus shows overall frequencies of around 200 per million in the early 19th century, rising to about 1,300 per million in the last decade. The Google estimates appear to be about 4 orders of magnitude (10000 times) too low. And the facts are similar for other forms containing apostrophes.

    The n-gram viewer instructions suggest that both splitting n-grams at apostrophes and leaving them in place should work. It's true that searches for /don't/ and /don 't/ return the same thing — but both are completely impossible to believe.

    I have no idea why this is — bad OCR? A bug in the tokenization routine, or the indexing function, or in the search interface? As always, without access to the underlying corpus, it's impossible to tell anything except that the counts are botched.

    In the second place, formal style continues to forbid contractions, right up to the present — and even in fiction, some narrative and other material is likely to be in a more formal style, while in other genres of publication, a formal style may entirely dominate. Thus in COCA's (contemporary) "fiction" collection, "don't" has a frequency of 2,313 per million, versus 118 per million for "do not", or 95% contraction. In its "academic" collection, "don't" has a frequency of 165 per million, versus 315 per million for "do not", or 34% contraction. (Compare the Google n-gram viewer's estimate of .000001/(.017+.000001) = .006% contraction!)

    For an estimate of the rate of "don't" contraction in contemporary American speech, we can turn to the LDC's corpus of telephone conversations, where there are 180,615 instances of "don't" in 26,151,602 total words, for a rate of 6,906 per million; 1,257 instances of "do not", for a rate of 48 per million; and thus a contraction rate of 99%.

    We learn very little about how people speak (much less about how they spoke) by looking at more formal genres of writing. In the Google collection, we have no information about the mix of (types of) works over time, and no way to limit searches to part of the corpus. So even if we could believe the counts — which we obviously can't — their meaning would be obscure.]

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 7:07 am

    @ Justin: Any explanation for this discrepancy?

    That the printed corpus is biased toward formality? I've suspected this in other cases: for instance, how Google N-gram Viewer finds "It is me" to be considerably less frequent than "It is I", despite the reverse having long been the case in conversational English.

    See It is me / It is I.

    [(myl) The Google Books subset (behind the n-gram counts) is no doubt biased towards formality, but searches for words with internal apostrophes still have counts that are way too low. There's pretty clearly some problem with OCR, tokenization, or indexing for forms containing apostrophes. See my response to the previous question.

    Or consider that the Google n-gram viewer shows "wouldn't" reaching a maximum frequency of about .01 per million (.0000010%, in the n-gram viewer's unfortunate choice of units). In COCA, the fiction section has 339 per million, the magazine section has 114 per million, and even the academic section has 18 per million. So even if the Google collection were 100% academic, its estimate in this case would still be 3 orders of magnitude off.

    In contrast, the n-gram viewer shows "would not" with a frequency of about 120 per million in recent years. COCA has "would not" at a frequency of about 108 per million in fiction, and 97 per million in academic prose. This difference is still worth trying to explain, but at least it might be explained in terms of the choice of material and/or differences in what counts as a "word", rather than in terms of some really major bug in the algorithms.]

  11. Justin said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    Yep, it seems very much like an OCR issue. Leaving out the apostrophe (eg "dont") gives slightly more believable results, but still far from the numbers we'd expect from the other corpus searches. Too bad.

    [(myl) After a bit more investigation, I don't think that it's OCR, or at least it's not mainly OCR. Thus a search in Google Books for "she and I will not" gets 52 hits, and for "she and I won't" gets 80, for 61% contracted forms. Both of these n-grams are too rare to get any hits at all in the n-gram sub-corpus. But "I will not" reaches a maximum of .002% (20 per million) in 1840, and falls to .0004% (4 per million) in 2000; in comparison, "I won't" reaches a maximum of .0000002% (.002 per million) in 1940.

    The basic OCR seems about right, or at least within a factor of two — the overall COCA collection gives 8,381 hits for "I won't" and 2,832 for "I will not", or 75% contracted, which is not too far away from from 61%, especially given the difference in time spans. But the n-gram corpus shows about .05% contracted forms.

    I conclude that the bug is probably in the tokenization, the indexing, or the search interface.]

  12. Chris said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    I can't help but be reminded of the discussion of Mad Men here on LL in September where one of the actors was quotes as saying “There was no ‘gonna’ or ‘shoulda’ back then [in the 1960's]” (apologies for the bare link, but I have had consistent problems getting an HTML link to work on LL).

    What is really going on in both cases, I imagine, is a lazy directors gives a bad direction to actors and they half-heartedly implement it.

    [(myl) Good point. I'd forgotten that one!]

  13. Otter said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    I noticed the absence of contractions in Maddie's speech, and it seemed as much specific to her character as related to the period. A precocious girl, schooled (by herself or someone else) with higher-class pretensions and large helpings of scripture, might tend to avoid contractions, and the fierce front she puts on when dealing with adults and trying to gain their respect and compliance might well increase this tendency.

    When Cogburn and others respond similarly to Maddie, they could be humoring her, or making fun of her, or trying to show that they are her equals in intelligence or education or society. We meet Cogburn in court, where he might be adopting more formal speech than usual for obvious reasons, and we see most of the other characters only as they react to Maddie. The movie doesn't show us much of how they speak when she's not around.

    [(myl) This makes sense as a theory of what Portis did. But if the Coen brothers were thinking this way, apparently Ethan chose to disguise it in his Newsweek interview. (Of course, it's generally unwise to trust journalistic transcriptions — but if Ethan Coen had answered along the lines that you suggest, I'd think it would have been more interesting and newsworthy than what he's represented as saying.]

  14. Robert Coren said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Perhaps it's partly a matter of authorial/directorial style, aiming for an "effect" of some sort. Reading Damon Runyon, one doesn't actually wonder if New York underworld characters in the 1920s shunned the use of the past tense.

    [(myl) As I wrote in the body of the post:

    Or was Portis using an exaggerated (if variable) lack of contraction as a way to project the personality of Mattie Ross, an elderly woman whose strong notions of right and wrong may have included some prescriptive feelings about contractions?

    Or as Otter wrote in an earlier comment:

    A precocious girl, schooled (by herself or someone else) with higher-class pretensions and large helpings of scripture, might tend to avoid contractions, and the fierce front she puts on when dealing with adults and trying to gain their respect and compliance might well increase this tendency.

    When Cogburn and others respond similarly to Maddie, they could be humoring her, or making fun of her, or trying to show that they are her equals in intelligence or education or society. We meet Cogburn in court, where he might be adopting more formal speech than usual for obvious reasons, and we see most of the other characters only as they react to Maddie.

    Charles Portis's other books aren't like this, so it's not a general "authorial style".]

  15. Harold said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    I haven't seen the movie, but I don't know if the Coens were aiming for simple "realism" (i.e., for mere creation of an illusion of historical accuracy), or, more likely, for an aesthetic effect of distancing the action from our own time and from mundane concerns. It is doubtful that 19th century whalers spoke in the Elizabethan manner of the protagonists of Melville's Moby Dick, for example. In making them do so, along with other stylistic quirks, such as slowing the action by interrupting the narrative with long digressions, Melville was aiming for aesthetic timelessness and a tone of high seriousness. In addition, he was conveying the message of the spiritual dignity of the ordinary person.

  16. dfan said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    Gene Wolfe's boy narrator in The Wizard Knight doesn't use contractions, which seemed really weird to me – it makes his voice seem very artificial, and it seems like a kid would use more contractions rather than fewer. I found it pretty grating.

  17. naddy said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    None of the characters in John Norman's Gor novels use contractions. I think the first contraction I found was in a tag question some fifteen books into the series. It seems to be an idiosyncrasy of the author's style.

    As for 19th century English in fiction, the language in the one episode of Deadwood I saw also seemed very dubious to me (switching between strangely ornate language and swearing for swearing's sake), but I'll leave that to people who watched more of the show.

  18. Jack Orion said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    Here's a link to the old Mad Magazine tribute, "True Fat"

  19. John Walden said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Like others, I believe that this a way of suggesting 'differentness'. I've just seen an episode of Criminal Minds where only the Mexicans speak without contractions: 'I do not understand. That is not possible, Señor'.

    I doubt if it's trying to be faithful to the possibility that they were taught not to use contractions in their English classes. Which may be true, just as in the quote “ the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.”
    It doesn't mean that's why it was done.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    I have always read the language in "True Grit" as exploiting the comic possibilities of an artificially ornate style, much as in the stories of Ring Lardner. You can see similar if more subtle, stylistic experiments in many popular writers of the first half of the twentieth century–for instance, in Dashiell Hammett's "The Glass Key," which is generally the culmination of Hammett's extremely spare prose style, he consistently calls the main character "Ned Beaumont," never "Ned" or "Beaumont." It's really glaringly strange as the examples pile up. But why? I have to think it's purely for the pleasure of getting a weird effect. Or in Portis's case, perhaps the pleasure of listening to a weird person, Mattie Ross, tell her story in a characteristically weird voice.

  21. Rod Johnson said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    Portis is still alive, by the way. I wonder if anyone has ever just asked him.

  22. Billy Ralph Bierbaum said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 3:02 pm

    Go back to the source material. The novel is an account written by an old woman who grew up reading the Elizabethan English of the Bible. It's likely, given her family's prosperity, that she had some formal education. She makes it clear that she reads newspapers and understands the politics of her day. She was taught to write in an expository style and is simply writing in the only manner she knows.

    It's been said that Portis' original manuscript had no contractions. His editor at Simon & Schuster, Robert Gottlieb, eliminated many of them to make the book more appealing to a modern audience.

    In any case, the Coen Brothers got it wrong. They mistook an old woman's writing style for the actual speech patterns of the time.

  23. John Walden said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    Another similar justification for not using contractions:

    What reason could there be to explain why neither Spock (Star Trek) nor Grover (Sesame St) use contractions?

  24. Sandra said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    I think it's really hard to recapture the sense of the past, which is perhaps why signifiers such as lack of contractions get used a lot. Has anybody noticed that characters on MadMen anachronisitically often say "really?" in that ironic way that only started around 1970?

    The following isn't a language example so much as a times change example. The other night I saw Angels in America onstage in NY. It's hardly a period piece, but in this play set in 1985 and written roughly 1990-93, one character refers to hell and says "It couldn't be worse than New York City." NY was a little rougher back then (e.g., 2245 murders in 1990, about 500 a year now). The audience seemed to respond with a "huh?"

  25. Joyce Melton said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    As a person most of whose relatives are from the Mattie Ross part of the world I can say that there is a specific narrative voice used for some tales that involves a lack of contractions. It is purposely ornate and contrary to how people actually talk as a way of exaggerating the importance of what is being said.

    My grandfather, born ten years after the supposed date of True Grit, used to tell stories of his grandparents in just that stilted way. Anecdotal evidence at best but also at least.

  26. John Kingston said,

    December 30, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    A character in Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister who goes by the name of Dolores Gonzales and pretends not to be a native speaker of English is unmasked by Philip Marlowe in the following exchange, where the failure to contract is treated as crucial if ironic evidence (note particularly the last exchange),

    She nodded slowly. "I have warned him," she said. "Several times."

    "Amigo," I said.


    "You don't use much Spanish do you? Perhaps you don't know much Spanish. Amigo gets worn to shreds."

    "We are not going to be like yesterday afternoon, I hope," she said slowly.

    "We're not. The only thing Mexican about you is a few words and a careful way of speaking that's supposed to give the impression of a person speaking a language they had to learn. Like saying 'do not' instead of 'don't.' That sort of thing."

    She didn't answer. She puffed gently on her cigarette and smiled.

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    @ John Walden: Star Trek

    And similarly with Mr Data in ST:TNG (although this seems to have been invented part-way though the series – see Memory Alpha).

  28. F. Escobar said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    I know contractions are the main point here, but something else that seemed linguistically interesting about True Grit was its emphasis on spelling. For instance, the main character chastises a marshal for writing feudal instead of futile (a confusion that even made it to Calvin and Hobbes a while back). There was another example later on in the film. As I watched the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if such virulence in condemning misspellings was historically accurate. Still, I'll also join those who have found the language of True Grit fascinating, perhaps even more appealing than the plot or other elements in the film.

    [(myl) See here for Mark Twain on the emphasis on spelling in his elementary school. This was in Hannibal MO in the 1840s. There's no "virulence" in his discussion — quite the opposite — but when a culture puts so much emphasis on something that's hard to learn, you can expect that judgmental people will get judgmental about it.]

  29. F. Escobar said,

    December 31, 2010 @ 3:30 pm

    Thanks, Mark, for your reply. The Twain descriptions are quite good. So it is possible that those comments on spelling in True Grit are historically warranted (or at least plausible).

    I've had Bolinger's Language – The Loaded Weapon on my mind lately, so I couldn't help but see echoes of your point about being judgmental in Bolinger's take on lay and lie. Nothing new here, but Bolinger's quite good at phrasing ideas provocatively and pithily; here it is:
    "The lie-lay distinction is fragile and impractical, and the price of maintaining it is too high. But that is exactly what makes it so useful as a social password; without the advantage of a proper background or proper schooling, you fail. (And if it has cost you an effort and you have mastered it, you do not want to admit that you have wasted your time.)" (p. 168).

  30. Lane said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    The Coens have never been ones for realism – maybe hyperreallism, but not really realism. From Blood Simple onwards, every Texan is a little too Texan, every Minnesoootan a little too Minnesooota, and so on. Things are either hyper-real or absurd (they took a savage killer in No Country for Old Mena and gave him a ridiculous haircut, just because that's the kind of thing they do) but they're never really real.

    As for lack of contractions in the second half of the 19th century, and I can't believe I'm admitting I watch True Blood sometimes, that show's character Bill Compton is irritatingly contraction-averse – in any one of many predictable heated arguments with his girlfriend, he invariably says "I cannot allow you to…" or "I do not see the point of…"

    He was supposed to be "turned" at the end of the Civil War. Vampires' hair and fingernails don't grow, an injury quickly reverts to the body's form as it was when the vampire was turned, and apparently they can't learn new linguistic skills, like the fact that in Louisiana in 2010 it's appropriate to use contractions.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    January 1, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    Since many, if not most, of the lines in the film are taken verbatim from Fortis's novel, I don't think you can make that strong a connection with the Coens' aesthetic choices.

  32. Cladrite Radio said,

    January 2, 2011 @ 11:19 am

    This discussion brings to mind the stylized and oddly formal language used on the HBO series DEADWOOD. It's been a while since I've seen an episode, so I can't speak to whether the writers avoided contractions in their dialogue, but they certainly were aiming for a stylized way of speaking meant to evoke the 19th century, even as they relied heavily on the use of modern profanities.

  33. True Grit: Contraction-Free Zone « faunæ or automat? said,

    January 4, 2011 @ 12:55 am

    […] […]

  34. Ed Parham said,

    January 20, 2011 @ 7:51 am

    I believe a clue to the source of Mattie Ross’ voice can be found in the transcript of a 2001 interview of Mr. Portis by friend and professional journalist Roy Reed.

    Here is the pertinent passage:

    RR: You had worked at the Arkansas Traveler at the University. Was that your only other newspaper experience?

    CP: Well, no, I worked at the Northwest Arkansas Times, too. The last year or so I was in Fayetteville. I did the courthouse beat, the sheriff’s office, the jail, Judge Ptak’s municipal court. A weird judge, to say the least. Justice was swift there. And I edited the country correspondence from these lady stringers in Goshen and Elkins, those places. I had to type it up. They wrote with hard-lead pencils on tablet paper or notebook paper, but their handwriting was good and clear. Much better than mine. Their writing, too, for that matter. From those who weren’t self-conscious about it. Those who hadn’t taken some writing course. My job was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports. Some fine old country expression, or a nice turn of phrase — out they went. We probably thought we were doing the readers a favor.


    I am an old newspaper reporter, too. I have also “edited” contributions from country correspondents many years my senior, and it seems to me now all these years later that these conscientious women had somehow contrived — perhaps by self-consciously studying their own and their colleague’s work over the years — their own shared style of writing which refrained from use of contractions.

  35. JoAnne said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 5:53 pm

    The speech of the characters in True Grit was not only without contractions, but the vocabulary and cadence were old-fashioned.
    The impression of the whole is somewhat Shakesperian. The characters and the tragedy/comedy plot also seem Shakesperian.
    That was my first impression–these characters are large. They wouldn't speak in an ordinary way. I like my idea.

  36. Lorraine said,

    January 24, 2011 @ 9:21 pm

    I noticed that they seemed to use strange passive constructions. For example, when Maddie is bitten by the snake, she said, "I am bit," rather than 'I've been bitten' or 'OMG, a snake bit me!'


    March 21, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    […] tolerated in speech but considered by language authorities an embarrassment in writing." This post at the Language Log blog says that "won't" was one of the contractions that […]

  38. lingeringmind said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    I just saw the movie on a log distance flight. I was struck by the pleasant lack of profane/vulgar language, in a population stereotyped as being profane & vulgar.

  39. addie said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 9:04 am

    Much belated, but I stumbled upon this randomly and went to take a look at a copy of the movie's script:

    As with the original manuscript, the movie script features a mix of contractions and non-contractions, as in these two lines early on:

    Your mama didn't say nothing about seeing to no business here!

    It is business Mama doesn't know about. It's all right, Yarnell, I dismiss you.

    As you can see, both Yarnell (a family worker) and Mattie use some contractions ("didn't," "doesn't," and "it's") while leaving others ("It is"). The same is true of most characters all throughout the script, at least as far as I've read through it :)

  40. Eric said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    May it not be that we are simple hearing the spoken past only via the written text? I'm not up on when the first recorded verbal dialog could be heard that would represent actual "common" conversation, however I think the non-literate commoner would not be speaking as the literate writer would have us believe. Once the literate writer commences pen to paper they may take on an air of "correctness" in their writing and have fooled us in this century into thinking that they actually spoke in such manner.

    Methinks the commoner spoken vastly different.

    "What ya'll doin' there?"
    "We're stuck in the mud and the dang mule won't pull 'er weight for a bucket of carrots! Giddy up Bessy, you good for nuthin! Ma's gonna make stew from you if'in you don't get goin!"

  41. Is it Time for Contractions in Legal Writing? said,

    March 13, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

    […] ill mannered, or overly familiar.” But this elitist view didn't stop Mark Twain from using hundreds of contractions in his late 19th-Century classic The Adventures of Tom Sawyer […]

  42. True Grit: Contraction-Free Zone | fAuxmAt said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 10:39 am

    […] […]

RSS feed for comments on this post