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I am currently writing a story set in London of 1795. I am trying my best to avoid linguistic anachronisms in the dialogue, but I have had difficulty finding reliable resources regarding spoken English of the period.

I would like to know whether any modern contractions (such as don't, can't, won't, isn't, that's, it's, etc.) were ever used in informal spoken English by Londonders during that period. Obviously, if they are anachronistic to the period I would prefer to avoid using them. However, if they were in use, they would help streamline my story's dialogue considerably in many places. I am principally interested in the application of "is"-contractions and "not"-contractions.

The characters in this story are for the most part, upper-class people with varying levels of formal education — lawyers, clergy, landed gentry, nobility, royalty, etc.

(And before anyone links it, I have read "True Grit Isn't True," but that article's focus on 19th-century American literature was not directly relevant to my question, though one of its sources suggested 17th-century origins for most is-contractions and not-contractions.)

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I think you're likely to get better advice at writers.stackexchange.com but in any case I think your best bet is to read novels or plays with dialogue in them both written and set in that time period. –  Merk Oct 18 '12 at 6:13
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Searching google books with a restricted date range turns up several results that may be worth combing through –  Cameron Oct 18 '12 at 6:20
    
You may find some interesting points at english.stackexchange.com/questions/8900/… although I realise that you are specifically interested in British usage. –  user16269 Oct 18 '12 at 6:33
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3 Answers

Shakespeare's texts are full of contractions, as are Dickens's:

Georgiana looked from her wine glass at Mr Lammle and at Mrs Lammle; but mightn't, couldn't, shouldn't, wouldn't, look at Mr Fledgeby.

It seems unlikely they died out in London between the lives of those two writers (both of whom spent the bulk of their writing lives in London). According to Patricia O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman, contractions were sufficiently in use during the 18th century to have purists rail against them. Jonathan Swift ranted about their use in The False Refinements in our Style. So I think you can confidently use contractions in your coming work; it's more a question of choosing the right ones for the period.

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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, was written in the middle of the 18th century, more than a century before Dickens's novels and a century after Shakespeare's plays, so it's more to the point:

Chapter 1, vi: Or, if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road,--or should sometimes put on a fool's cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along,--don't fly off,--but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside;

Chapter 1, viii: and for the rest,--why--God speed them--e'en let them ride on without opposition from me;

Chapter 1, xii: that when he thought, good easy man! full surely preferment was o'ripening

Most seem to be there for 'tis and 'twas and to elide the e in past-tense endings, as in mix'd so that it isn't pronounced as a two-syllable word.

While they were there, perhaps they weren't as popular as they are today. You might want to check other 18th-century novelists and playwrights' works. Making assumptions based on the work 17th- and 19th-century writers doesn't seem to me to be sound or scientific practice. And if you're called on it, and find yourself pointing to Dickens and Shakespeare, you'll turn crimson (well, I would) if your critics point out that they weren't writing dialogues typical of the speech of Londoners in 1795.

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I wasn't recommending any such thing, Bill, just bookending the time period. The Jonathan Swift reference is right in the time frame and gives plenty of examples, even if some are parodic. If you meant to criticise my answer, surely a comment on that answer is the appropriate place, rather than sideswipes from your own. –  itsbruce Oct 18 '12 at 6:26
    
I understand bookending & agree it'd be strange for this usage to change so radically between those two centuries. Sterne's language & style are very different from WS's and CD's, however. I checked neither Swift's dates or work nor your links: no time. Parodic uses are legitimate: dialogues are the point. My advice is: "Assume nothing about one period based on two others: verify usages for the time & place". I was surprised to see so few contractions in Sterne. If I think you're wrong, I'll say it. I'm not shy about criticism either way: you may have noticed. –  user21497 Oct 18 '12 at 9:25
    
Fair enough, Bill :) –  itsbruce Oct 18 '12 at 9:33
    
I didn't judge the quality of your answer because I can't without taking my own advice first: "verify usages for the time & place". I just added something I thought needed to be made explicit rather than kept implicit. To be perfectly honest, I'm a bit surprised by the OP's question. There should be newspaper stories -- novels were being serialized and published in newspapers by then -- as well as books. Proj Gutenberg has some in its archives, e.g., Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); she uses few of significance. M.G. Lewis's The Monk (1795-6) uses few: "o'er". –  user21497 Oct 18 '12 at 9:48
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Gothic novels are not a very useful source for contemporary speech; stage comedies, light prose satire and political cartoons are probably better. But there is a tendency to expand spoken contractions in literary works. I haven't the space to provide examples in a comment, but I can assure OP that the ordinary contractions with 's (=is),'re (=are),'ll (=will), 've (=have), and n't (=not) have been in use continuously since the 16th century. –  StoneyB Oct 18 '12 at 12:14
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Yes, they were used! Many contractions date back to Old and Middle English. But there are many different kinds — with pronouns, within nouns, with auxiliary verbs, with negation... Your best bet is to look it up in the OED. Look up the word (e.g. look at the entry for "be, v." for finding out about "isn't") and then Ctrl + F for "contracted". You'll find the dates, with quotes, etc., for all the usages.

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