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Mind Your Language

April 2001, no. 229

Mind Your Language

April 2001, no. 229

It isn’t difficult to establish conversational tone in writing. And since a column about language and usage ought to be a conversation, we’ll go for that tone. Let’s start with a workout for a current, overused device. There’ve been three of them before this sentence: four now. You’ll find them if you look (Five.) Yes, we’re looking at the conversational contraction, and it’s time to stop counting.

Time for a deep breath. That first paragraph obviously over­egged the pudding, but it was not too far away from what you are likely to find these days in chatty newspaper columns, or in serious newspaper commentary and argument. The main difference is that the negative contractions – ’can’t’, ‘don’t’, and so on – will be more strongly represented than in my playful sample.

It would be harsh, and erroneous, to insist that it is inherently wrong to use contractions in conversational prose. But the habit is getting out of hand. An eminent figure in Australian letters told me the other day he had encountered ‘needn’t’ve’ in a current Australian novel – not in a passage of direct speech. He was appalled, but another friend thinks he should not complain: he should be grateful that it was not ‘needn’t of.

The easiest thing to say about the habit is that it is a lazy path to conversational tone. Perhaps that does not matter much, but it is often also a form of intellectual fudging. ‘The chance is not likely to come again’ has an air of heavy finality. ‘The chance isn’t likely to come again’ is more genial in tone. But the opinion is the same. What does the writer want to do: make the call, or be nice?

And there we have it. Contraction-laden prose is so nice, so cosy, that you glide through it as easily as you let time drift while luxuriating in a warm bath, and with a similar result. Nothing registers. And that is not entirely consistent with the purpose of writing something down for others to read.

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