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this is really a question for Americans. When watching US TV or films, it's often my impression that, while using all the other contractions, Americans don't seem so keen on 'don't', but use 'do not' rather more often than we Brits. And I don't think it's only when it is stressed. Any comments?

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I think perhaps you will find comparatively more "do not"s in series or films because they are based on written scripts. Even so, you may be right – I have no idea. – Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 15:18
Can you give some examples of this? – Kosmonaut Jan 10 '11 at 16:25
@Cerberus - No, I don't think it's that. As I said 'while using all the other contractions'.@Everyone else - And no sorry, I don't have any evidence. As I said, it's only an impression. But thanks guys for trying. I'm very new here, but I'm beginning to recognise the monikers of the 'usual suspects'. – RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 10 '11 at 17:25
I remember this anecdote about a student during a lecture about linguistics standing up and saying: I don't say "don't!" – Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 22:52
Maybe Random has been watching too much Star Trek. – Hot Licks Oct 26 at 20:07

6 Answers 6

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I did some searches in the Corpus of Contemporary American English and compared the results to similar searches in the British National corpus.

What I found was that overall, in American English there was a 7.9-to-1 ratio of don’t to do not. With breakdowns by type:

SPOKEN    19.6
FICTION   17.9
TOTAL      7.9

In British English overall, the ratio was 4.4-to-1 in favor of don’t, with breakdowns by type:

SPOKEN     56.9
FICTION    16.8
NON-ACAD    0.9
MISC        0.9

So, if it is reasonable to conclude anything from this data, it is that Americans overall use don’t about twice as frequently as the British, but the British use don’t in speech about 2.9 times more frequently than Americans. In any case, these are not big enough ratios to be noticeable by anyone not counting every incidence.

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Brilliant, backing up your answer with statistics. +1 – ghoppe Jan 10 '11 at 20:16
+1 Wow, interesting. – Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 20:26
It's also possible that the higher incidence in BrE comes about from popular localized constructions that often use the word "don't". – treeface Jan 11 '11 at 0:52
@nohat brilliant answer, +1. @treeface out of curiousity, can you make an example of such a localized construction? – Pekka 웃 Jan 11 '11 at 2:29
Thanks for all your work, Nohat, my question was exclusively about spoken English, as I said, on TV and in films. In which case, if I'm reading your figures correctly, Americans don't seem to use 'don't' nearly as much as us when speaking, but use it rather more than us in print. I know that some people in the UK (but not me) consider contractions inappropriate for the printed word. So I think one way or another you've answered my question. Thanks. – RandomIdeaEnglish Jan 11 '11 at 19:58

I think we use "don't" and "can't" almost exclusively in normal conversation here in the U.S. "Do not" and "cannot" are reserved for making special emphasis or dramatic effect. But we have a long history of using the word "don't" — particularly in admonishing our former colonial masters. Have a look at this colonial American flag (Gadsden Flag, source: Wikipedia).

alt text

And its naval equivalent:

alt text

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These flags were created during the Revolutionary War, weren't they? This was when British and Americans likely had very little difference in their manner of speaking. In any case, I don't really think the observation was that we never use "don't". – Kosmonaut Jan 10 '11 at 16:51
@Kosmonaut: Actually the flags were created c. 1754, during the time of the French and Indian War. They were employed early on in the revolution, eventually being superseded by the "Old Glory" we're all familiar with now. (Interesting side note: cf. the flag of the British East India Company — — which predates the American flag.) In any case, I stated my belief about usage in the first sentence of my answer. I only included the flags for a little bit of humor at the end. – Robusto Jan 10 '11 at 16:56
These flags are important evidence and deserve an upvote. – Cerberus Jan 10 '11 at 17:38
@Cerberus: How are the flags important evidence? These are examples of English over 250 years ago, when we were still British Colonies. And it only shows that the word "don't" was ever used at least once, not that it is used as much as the British do. Even Robusto says the flags were added for humor. – Kosmonaut Jan 10 '11 at 18:21
@Cerberus: In online discussion boards, IMs, and other chat-like discussions, I prescribe that one must always use the smiley :), winky-smiley ;), or sarcasm tag /s whenever one writes a non-obvious sarcastic comment. To do anything else is completely wrong and has no place in the English language. I write papers on English sometimes, so I am an authority figure on the topic. Did that help? :) – Kosmonaut Jan 10 '11 at 20:30

I don't doubt that we say "don't" in the US as much as our cousins across the pond.

That is, I expect usage is similar in the US and UK.

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I think you're right, but do you have any actually evidence? – JSBձոգչ Jan 10 '11 at 15:47
@JSBangs: Does RandomIdeaEnglish have any? It sounds like a very difficult thing to prove. If there is no difference in the usage of "don't", then nobody is going to investigate it or write a paper on it. So one of us would have to do it ourselves. But you couldn't go and compare a British corpus to an American corpus... you would need something else. – Kosmonaut Jan 10 '11 at 16:25
@JSBangs - No, I don't :-) Seriously, I don't know how one would go about obtaining evidence. – John Satta Jan 10 '11 at 16:28

I'm new to the site. I stumbled across this forum question, because as a British ESOL Tutor, living in the USA for the past 25 years, my lesson for my students tonight is about "contractions"! I, from my own personal experience have observed and noted, that the spoken contraction (don't) is definitely 'spoken' less frequently, by all and sundry, around Palm Beach County where I reside. In fact, as a Brit, I treasure be a proud and frequent speaker of contractions, especially (don't!) but my oldest teenage son and his teenage buddies rarely speak this contraction. They, in fact, to my observant ear, only say "do not"! I'm constantly admonishing my son for not saying "don't!", instead choosing his wording in a similar vein to his fellow teens. I will, however, bring to your attention, that my son likes to text IDK, in place of "I don't know". Which then makes me in turn chuckle, because of his infrequent use of the contraction "don't". I need to draw to his attention his acronym doesn't make sense unless he actually uses the contraction "don't" in his conversation, because his acronym should instead read IDNK (I do not know)!

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Hello HLM, and welcome to the site. It's great to hear from someone who has many years experience with both dialects, somewhat a rarity around these parts, which is why I upvoted your unsupported but useful answer nevertheless. – Mari-Lou A Oct 26 at 19:59
Hi, thank you for your response.Yes, I can say, I know both sides of the story as far both the American and UK version of English, after having resided here for 25 years. Sometimes, I find myself in doubt over traditional English words that I haven't heard spoken here in the States.I always find watching a dose of good British drama on PBS on a Sunday reminds me of my British English roots. As for supporting evidence, the only way to corroborate would be to capture my son's text messages,which frequently make me wince with grammatical errors and a deficit of genuine contractions! Oh well ;) – HLM Oct 28 at 0:24
Hello again! Maybe, when you have the time, you could post an answer to this question: (a warning: you need 50 rep points before you are given the "privilege" of posting a comment on users' posts, you can post comments if you are the author of a question or an answer) I'm finding it hard to believe that the phrase "there were quite fifty people in the house." is grammatical, let alone BrEng. – Mari-Lou A Oct 28 at 6:28
I have used the expression "there were not quite as many as myself" many times over. But not the exact expression that you wrote above. It does, however, sound correct to my British ear, especially when I mull it over a couple of times! – HLM Oct 30 at 15:33

I've voted for nohat's answer, because of the evidence, but I offer my observations anyway:

I find that Americans generally use accepted contractions, including don't. I rarely hear do not except for emphasis. Another data point: In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Worf and Data are conspicuous for their contraction-free speech, again including don't (Worf is formal by choice; Data has some kind of weird programming deficiency). This is actually played up in the show from time to time. Everyone else uses don't freely.

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When I was young I was taught not to use contractions in my written works. I wonder if the same English style conventions were taught in the UK, and if that has any effect on American and UK script writers or not.

I believe children are now being taught to write more conversationally, and contractions are not frowned on in written language as much as they used to be.

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