20

The verb let means “allow”, “permit”, “not prevent or forbid”, “pass, go or come” and it's used with an object and the bare infinitive.

  1. Are you going to let me drive or not?
  2. Don't let him off the hook.
  3. Before we let our children surf the Internet, they have to do their homework.
  4. She lets the cats out before leaving.
  5. He let us into the house.

The full form let us can be used similarly

  1. Let us know as soon as possible.
  2. Please, let us help you.
  3. They will never let us forget.

None of the above can be contracted; however, when let us is used for making a suggestion; giving self-encouragement; expressing a consequence or plea, it is often contracted to let's

Let's go out
Let's have a party
Let's see what happens
Let's stand together in this emergency
Let's not forget those who sacrificed their lives


Questions

  • I believe that let + us is the only instance where this type of contraction occurs. Is there an explanation as to why verbs such as (i) give + us, (ii) get + us or (iii) take + us were not similarly contracted?

  • When was the apostrophe used to replace the omitted letter "u" in let us?

  • What is the origin of let's?

  • 3
    "Let them" is spoken, and can be written as "let 'em", as can "let 'er", etc. I've never, in fact, seen "Let her rip!" (Not saying it hasn't been written; Ngrams shows that that was the predominant way to write it before 1960.) – anongoodnurse Apr 3 '15 at 19:45
  • 2
    @Josh61 - Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table;/Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,/The muttering retreats/Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:/Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent/To lead you to an overwhelming question… /Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”/Let us go and make our visit. (That was T.S. Elliot, by the way, not a personal invite. Didn't want to change the quotation marks.) – anongoodnurse Apr 3 '15 at 19:50
  • 1
    As to your first question, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language calls let's a "quasi-modal". As such it is followed by a second verb "let's go .., let's eat ..., let's not be late". etc. in a way that regular transitive verbs give, get and take are not. The let-imperative is an interesting, complex topic; The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language devotes more than 5 pages to it. – Shoe Apr 6 '15 at 7:41
  • 1
    I think you would have to ask a new question - removing the stuff about etymology, which is not covered in the CGEL. This extract (p934) might provide a pointer: "In 1st person inclusives us can be contracted to 's, whereas in ordinary imperatives, it can't: Don't make us/*'s look ridiculous; he won't let us/*'s join. As it stands, Let us go with her is ambiguous between a 1st person inclusive (I propose that we go with her) and an ordinary imperative (Allow us to go with her), but if we reduce the us to 's, only the first possibility remains." – Shoe Apr 6 '15 at 9:05
  • 1
    Interesting question! Your last example for “Let’s” (in the negative), could even give rise to an interesting discussion of how “let’s” should/can be negated. I generally prefer the “let’s not” form as in your example (probably most often in “Let’s not & say we did.” But I have heard/said “Don’t let’s” & even the questionable “Let’s don’t” to negate “Let’s.” (Aside: the negative form of ‘let’s” often captures the inherently negative notion of ‘lest,” so is it possible that “let’s” in its negative form came from 'misuse' of the similarly spelled “lest” [“let’s not forget”/”lest we forget”]?) – Papa Poule Apr 7 '15 at 16:44
6
+250

It appears that the contracted form of ‘let us’, let's has acquired idiomatic meaning and usage through the years.

Let's go and let us go, may convey different meanings. Let us go in the sense of allow us to go, may not be replaced with let's.

Let's see why:

Usage note:

  • Let’s is always inclusive, which refers to both the speaker and the addressee, while let us is commonly exclusive, which refers only to the speaker. (www.yourdictionary.com)

    • Let's go, we are late. - inclusive we
    • Release us and let us go! - exclusive we

According to the following source:

  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage - describes the construction as idiomatic and has this to say: “Let’s can also be followed by a pair of pronouns in either the nominative or the objective case; the constructions occur in both American and British English.”
    and it notes that these “are idiomatic constructions—no matter what the case of the pronoun—found almost exclusively in spoken English.”

    • Some grammarians believe that “let’s” is treated here as a single unit rather than a contraction of “let us”—that is to say, the “us” is swallowed up. Consequently, the speaker senses that “let’s” needs some propping up, and adds “you and me” or the slightly more formal-sounding “you and I.”

    • A modern grammarian might say that “us” or ’s has been “desemanticized” or has experienced “semantic loss,” and thus requires additional information in the way of “lexical support.”

    • It’s been argued now and then that because the object pronoun “us” is part of the contraction, any propping up should be done with pronouns in a similar case. By this argument, “let’s you and me” is preferable to “let’s you and I.”

    • But in our opinion, that argument merely creates the illusion that “correctness” is possible (or even desirable) here. As the OED says, this is an “irregular phrase” no matter what the case.

(www.grammarphobia.com)

Etymology:

  • Merriam-webster says that the first known use of let's, a contraction of let us, dates back to 1567.

  • The contraction “let’s” has been around since at least as far back as Elizabethan times. Shakespeare used it hundreds of times in his plays, including King Henry VI, Part II, with its famous line:

  • “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

  • As to why the contraction is used with let and not with give or take for instance, I think that let's (as encouragement or as exhortation) is such a specific, often used, and natural expression whose common use has probably contributed to its diffusion.
  • 1
    That usage note is very interesting (where is it from, though?). I never realised before that let’s is actually, contrary to more or less everything else in the English language, strictly inclusive. English doesn’t have specific inclusive/exclusive pronouns, but it seems it does have a strictly inclusive verb–pronoun sememe! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 7 '15 at 13:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - Is is from Wiktionary, not my favorite source, but I think the note is helpful. – user66974 Apr 7 '15 at 14:04
  • 1
    @Janus. Quirk et al. in A comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (p830) note: "In very colloquial English let's is sometimes used for a first person singular imperative as well: Let's give you a hand." Another example is: Let's have a look, which "can refer to the speaker alone." – Shoe Apr 7 '15 at 14:16
  • 1
    @Shoe True; but I rather feel that’s a slightly different thing. Especially the first one: it still requires a you to be present and, to me at least, somehow semantically involved in the imperative. The second one, I’d say, is just a dialectal feature, using plural us for singular me in general (“Give us a a kiss” and “Let’s hear it” are often singular, and dialectally, so can “He gave us a tenner” be). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 7 '15 at 14:25
  • @Janus. Agreed; I thought it helpful to point out that let's is not always a 1st person inclusive. – Shoe Apr 7 '15 at 15:06
5

Why the apostrophe?

The brainchild of a Frenchman called Geoffroy Tory, the apostrophe was born in 1529 and adopted by British typographers in 1559. Originally, its use was to show a missing vowel letter, and it was used mainly to show spoken English, as in a play script. In the case of ‘let's’, the apostrophe substituted the letter -u. Thus an English word such as loved, could be written as lov'd, the article the could be represented as th', and agree could be spelled 'gree. This also explains why ‘it is’ and ‘it was’ were often contracted to ‘tis and ‘twas.

Initially, the apostrophe was intended to demonstrate the elision of a vowel, meaning the vowel sound had been omitted, assimilated, or slurred in pronunciation, as in th’ inevitable end, but the apostrophe was also used to indicate a missing letter when the vowel no longer existed in the spoken form, as in can’t (Parkes, 1993, p.55).

Parkes, M.B. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West

Early examples of the apostrophized ‘let's’

The Proverbs, Epigrams, and Miscellanies of John Heywood (1562)
(edition printed 1906)

Thy tales, (quoth he), show long hair, and short wit, wife:
But long be thy legs, and short be thy life.

Pray for yourself! I am not sick, (quoth she).
Well let's see, what they last tale cometh to, (quoth he):
Thou sayest I spend all; to this, thy words wander;
But, as deep drinketh the goose as the gander.
Thou canst cough in the aumbry
, if need be, [. . .]

The Shepheards Garland, Fashioned in Nine Eglogs (1593)
By Michael Drayton, John Payne Collie

Come frolick it a while my lustie swayne,
Let's see if time haue yet reui'd in thee,
Or if there be reayning but a grayne,
Of the olde stocke of famous poesie,
Or but one slip yet left of this same sacred tree.

Have with You to Saffron-Walden Or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is Up
By Thomas Nashe, ‎John Payne Collier (1596) [p.43 let’s have]

The Taming of the Shrew By William Shakespeare (1596)
(edition printed in 1885)

But come, let's go unto Alfonso's house,
And see how Valeria and Kate agrees;
I doubt his music scarce will please his scholar.
But stay, here comes Alfonso.

Laura: The Toys of a Traveller or The Feast of Fancy (1597)
By Robert Tofte

Th’ immortal PARCÆ, fatal Sisters three,
Of mortal men, do sing the shunless fate:
What once Was, what Is now, and what Shall Be;
Their life, their death, their fortune, and their state.
Our Song let be like theirs! for Three they were;
And so our number is. Three are we here.
Sing Laura then! Sing Love! and sing will I!
Of dreary fortune mine, sing let us all!
Let's sing in doleful tune most mournfully.
How 'Tis, how Twas, and hapless still Shall fall ;
The Present, Past, and (which none can mend) What Shall Be, world to come, withouten end.

By the same author. Three examples of let's in one sonnet.

enter image description here

Skialetheia. or, A Shadowe of Truth, in certaine Epigrams and Satyres (1598)
This edition printed in 1843

Oh what a slauerie's this? Shall a free mind
Sicke of a Cockneys ague, feare the wind?
No, let's be Stoicks, resolute, and spare not
To tell the proudest criticke that we care not
For his wooden censure, nor to mittigate
The sharp tart veruice of his snap-haunce hate

Law-trickes OR, Who Would Have Thought It.
Written by John Day (1608)

Can. Impute the gross mistake to the fault of the Author:—You shall likewise see the amorous Conceits and Love songs betwixt Captain Pod of Pycorner and Mrs. Rump of Ram-alley, never described before.

Swash. Good master, let's see Mrs. Rumps of Ramm-alley.
Y. Str. How? Captain Pod and Mrs. Rump? I think this snuffling slave flouts us: then y'faith let's see the sawing of the Devil with a wooden saw.

let us away vs. let’s away

The following is an excerpt from a wiktionary discussion [emphasis mine]

I don’t see away as a verb at all. It’s an adverb. Let's away is not an unusual or antiquated use of away, but of let’s. In Modern English, let's requires a verb, as in let's go (away). [. . .] it just means “let's go”, “let's leave”, “let's depart”. [. . .] let's is very similar to the modal verbs can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, ought, need and dare, in that in Modern English it needs to govern an infinitive verb (let's do it, let's eat), but in earlier times the infinitive could be elided and implied, as in “let's away”.

Google Ngram 1560 to 1750 enter image description here

Google Ngram 1750 to 1950 enter image description here

let us/let’s away vs. let us/let’s go

enter image description here enter image description here

Let us see vs. let’s see

Let's see is an idiomatic expression, used when the speaker is thinking or trying to remember something, let us see was first recorded in 1520.

enter image description here enter image description here

‘let us consider’ vs. ‘let's consider’

This Ngram chart is probably indicative as to when and why “let us” is contracted to let's. The formal-sounding expression “let us consider” is more likely to be found in academic papers, texts or studies than in poetry or novels; according to Google Ngram, its equivalent let us think has been overtaken by the contracted let's think in recent years.

Google Ngram 1570-1750 enter image description here Google Ngram 1750-1990 enter image description here

When (and why) is “let us” contracted as “let's”?

The following might shed some light...

First-person inclusive let-imperatives (let us/let's) are commonly considered as proposals for joint action by speaker and addressee, but there are some cases which diverge from the cohortative usage. Thus, let's can also be speaker-oriented and function e.g. as a
(self-)exhortative announcement. Or it can be addressee-oriented, carrying a “second person quasi-imperative meaning”
(Biber et al. 1999:1117; cf. De Clerck 2004:218f)

Sources: Peter Viney's Blog; Wikipedia Apostrophe; Christina Cavella and Robin A. Kernodle The Story of the Apostrophe; Wikipedia Cohortative; Edited by Andreas H. Jucker Early Modern English News Discourse

4

The earliest usage, I found out, could be credited to Shakespeare.

  • Let's hold more chat— Shakespeare, 1588;
  • Let us begone from this place— Dickens, 1840.

Innovatory colloquial variants, irregular in form, have been brought into the language in America (and thence elsewhere) in the 20c:

  • Let's you and I take 'em on for a set— W.Faulkner, 1929;
  • Let's you and me duck out of here— D. Macdonald, 1950

(From Fowler's Modern English Usage)

  • 1
    Let's you and me could be taken to treat you and me as being appositive to us. – Anonym Apr 3 '15 at 20:54
  • 1
    OED says 1598 for Shakespeare's usage in Love's Labour's Lost and the original book I found is from 1598. Also, the original usage doesn't have apostrophe: If you denie to daunce, lets holde more chat. – ermanen Apr 3 '15 at 23:43
2

In Dutch and German, a similar construct with "laten we" / "lassen wir" (literally "let we") is possible. See for example http://taaladvies.net/taal/advies/vraag/483/laat_ons_laten_we/. This makes it plausible that the origins of using "let" for suggestions go back to before the West Germanic languages split.

  • The question is not about the etymology of using "let" as a suggestion, but about the contraction of "let us" to "let's", which does not exist in Dutch. (The question's title is a bit misleading, though.) – tjalling Apr 11 '15 at 22:08
  • @tjalling The contraction of "let us" to "let's" is used in cohortative sentences. This includes making suggestions: Let's meet up for a coffee. – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '15 at 8:48
  • @Mari-Lou I'm not disputing that. Thanks for introducing me to the term cohortative by the way. What I meant to state was that it's cohortative use (although I didn't know the term) was a given in the question, and given that (co)hortative use, the question asks why let's is the only instance where contraction occurs. Did I misunderstand the question? – tjalling Apr 12 '15 at 10:25
  • @tjalling No, you didn't misunderstand my question. It seems that let's in its contracted form, is quite unique. I am still searching for a reason why an imperative phrase such as: "Give us your money!" was never contracted to Give's the money! Where the pronoun "us" could colloquially stand for "me" or the first-person plural "us". – Mari-Lou A Apr 12 '15 at 10:38
2

The interesting thing here is that it is probably first a degeneration of an answer rather than the imperative statement. It could be a mark of that oh-so-typical human impatience that contracted this short phrase.

"Shall we come up with an example?"
Let us!

The origination of the contraction is dated around the time of Elizabethan England (1567, according to M-W). It is certainly likely that, even if Shakespeare did use it in his plays (Henry VI P2, "let's kill all the lawyers"), it was well in use colloquially first.

Another point to make is that English lacks a simple conjugation of the first-person plural imperative, while both Germanic and Romantic languages have consistent presentations. The contraction may have been a partial result of this lack, in that there is clearly a need for a simple way for language to express this type of imperative.

2

In Glaswegian dialect "give us" is often contracted in this way. The verb itself is changed to "gie" (interestingly, it becomes regular: past simple and past participle "gied") and "give us" is commonly abbreviated to "gies" (pronounced "gheez" and in exactly the same way as the third person singular)

  • A reference would be appreciated, if that's possible, or writing a sample sentence using this gies – Mari-Lou A May 25 '17 at 23:04
  • youtube.com/watch?v=qwMfHvl-2ck this is an example from a scottish TV comedy from the 1990's – user237807 May 25 '17 at 23:45
  • OK, if you wouldn't mind including the citation: "Gie us a swatch of yer paper." along with the link in your actual answer, that would be great. Comments have a tendency if getting arbitrarily deleted, instead posts are more "protected". Thanks :) – Mari-Lou A May 26 '17 at 0:00
  • +1 from me anyways, I got to catch up with my beauty sleep, so I can't hang around waiting :) – Mari-Lou A May 26 '17 at 0:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.