The following extract from M-W Learner's Dictionary comments on the usage of "don't":

  • Don't is occasionally used in American English speech and in historical writing as a contraction of does not (as in, "He don't know where he is going."), but this use is now considered improper and should be avoided. Remember that in modern speech and writing, don't cannot be used in the third person singular.

Google Books actually confirms the historical usage, but this ungrammatical expression appears to be relatively common still nowadays, and not only in spoken language.

Questions:

  • Was the usage of "don't" for the third singular person considered grammatical/correct in the past? If so,

  • When and why did the "does" form become considered to be the only correct expression?

  • Is its current usage still and AmE thing or is it used as nonstandard expression also in other English dialects?

  • 1
    Still bad English in AmE. Note that Google NGram converts "he don't, she don't" to "he do not, she do not" because of the way they process books, so I'm not sure that it definitively supports your claim. Also, keep in mind that novels containing dialog may be included in the corpus; I'm thinking of Mark Twain, for instance. If I'm mistaken about the inclusion of fiction, please let me know! (I did not down-vote your question.) – Mark Hubbard Mar 9 '17 at 16:23
  • @MarkHubbard - he "don't" or "he do not" are the same thing, and the historical usage is clear. So what is your point here. – user66974 Mar 9 '17 at 16:25
  • 1
    I feel duty bound to redress the mysterious downvote (though I'd like the power to redress many mystery upvotes on various single-word requests). – Edwin Ashworth Mar 9 '17 at 16:25
  • Josh, sorry about that. My point is you are likely to receive opinions rather than facts in comments and answers. – Mark Hubbard Mar 9 '17 at 16:27
  • 1
    Contractions, especially negative ones like ain't and don't, are reified and prone to freezing their morphology. So ain't is used in all persons and numbers You/he/she/we/they ain't gonna be there), don't gets used in the 3sg (He just don't give a damn), and singular auxiliaries are common with plural subjects (Them days is gone forever). – John Lawler Mar 11 '17 at 22:30
up vote 4 down vote accepted
+100

Dictionary.com has a nice summary:

Don't is the standard contraction for do not. As a contraction for does not, don't first appeared in writing in the latter half of the 17th century, about the same time as the first written appearance of other contracted forms with not, like mayn't and can't. Don't remained the standard contraction for does not in both speech and writing through the 18th century. During the 19th century, under pressure from those who thought it illogical and who preferred doesn't in that use, don't for does not gradually became less frequent in writing but continued to be common in speech. Don't for does not still occurs in the informal speech and in the personal writing of many Americans, including the well educated, especially in the Midland and Southern dialects. It does not occur in edited writing or formal speech.

The Subjunctive

Don't started out as a contraction of "do not". The earliest examples of third singular + don't have this meaning, and are proper grammar because it's the subjunctive.

With the possible exception of the instance on line 1580 of The Ordinary, all don’t’s stand for ’do not’. That instance no doubt also stands for ’do not’, as it appears in a position where speakers of the time would be likely to employ a subjunctive.
The Contractions of not: A Historical Note

I found an online version of The Ordinary (1751), and I think this is the instance on line 1580:

Pox o'your liquorous lips; if that she don't
After this sealing forty weeks deliver
Something unto thee as thy act and deed,
Say I can't Prophesie.

Use of the subjunctive has declined, and it is now "uncommon" or even "rare". According to Wikipedia:

The negated present subjunctive is always unambiguous with the third person singular (e.g., (that) he do not own).

First Instances

According to the Dictionary.com quote, the first time don't was used as a contraction of doesn't was the late 17th century.

No matter for that; go, bid her dance no more, it don’t become her, it don’t become her, tell her I say so.
The Man of Mode (1676)

I am deceived if this Town don't teach her Wit.

[...]

But what pleases you don't please another; I like my own Way still.

The London Cuckolds (1682)

The paper The Contractions of not: A Historical Note (again) lists all these sources, saying:

This generalization seems likely to be related to the decline of the use of the subjunctive where don’t with a third singular subject would have been natural.


I haven't found much in old grammar books (or similar) about this. The earliest source I found was English Language in Its Elements and Forms (1858), which says:

Don't is a contraction of do not, and not of does not. Don't for does not is a vulgarism.

Modern Usage

It's certainly used outside of America, but the real question is how much? I'll give you some numbers for comparison.

American English

In certain dialects of American English, spoken usage is really high. In particular, AAVE, as this quote says:

Note, finally, that don’t rather than doesn’t is the normal form in third person singular environments. Labov et al. (1968:247–248) find 83% (N = 90) use of don’t in NYC (96% among male teenage gang members), Fasold (1972:124) finds 87.5% (N = 24) use of don’t, and Weldon (1994:367) finds 86% (N = 94).

It also references some other American dialects:

Leveling to don’t is by no means restricted to African American English, since Wolfram & Christian (1975:116) found 85% in their West Virginia study, and Feagin (1979:198) reports 99% (N = 147) use of don’t among urban working class European Americans from Anniston, Alabama.
Negation in African American Vernacular English

British English

While not as high as in certain American dialects, there is still significant usage in British English:

The high presence of don't in the language of these speakers is in keeping with previous studies; thus, Anderwald (2002: 156) records an overall average for Britain of 30.1 per cent, this percentage increasing considerably in the case of the dialects of Central southwest England and Lower southwest England (52.1 per cent and 46 per cent respectively). To understand Anderwald's findings properly, we must bear in mind that they are based on BNC data, and that the demographic of this corpus includes speakers of all age groups, from young to elderly. By contrast, our data here are restricted to young speakers in London. Furthermore, Cheshire et al. (1999:78) also report auxiliary third-singular do as more frequent in the south than in the north.
He don't like football does he? A corpus-based study of third person singular don't in the language of British teenagers

There is evidence that "He don't" was proper long ago in British writings.

For example:

An essay upon the interest of England; in respect to Protestants (1701):

He'l dread the Government, when he don't revere it

The Constant Couple (1704)

if he don't Cheat you of your Estate

The Works of Mr. Abraham Cowley, 12th Edition (1710):

Pray Heav'n he don't forget my Instructions there

Of the Law of Natur and Nations (1729)

But after all, a Man should be cautious, that he don't set an Example to others, that one Time or other may be of dangerous Consequence to himself.

The History of the Works of the Learned for the Year 1738:

your Friend may then guess who he is, if he don't before

The Proceedings of a General Court-martial Held at the Horse-Guards ... of Lord George Sackville (1760) :

He don't exactly remember
...
He don't remember that anything more passed
...
He don't know
...
He don't recollect
...
he don't imagine
...
He don't pretend to remember
...
He don't particularly recollect


The earliest statement that I've seen saying that "he don't" is improper is in The intellectual grammar (1852) where, in a list of examples of "improper use of words" is:

He don't do it well-does not

The 1826 A practical grammar of the Dutch language implies "He don't" is proper by translating:

Hij weet het niet [=] He don't know it

Overall, "He don't" seems to have been proper until about 1850.

  • Couldn't some of those examples be subjunctive forms? Pray Heav'n he don't forget my instructions, for example, is grammatically analogous to Pray Heav'n he be mindful of me or the like, which is perfectly grammatical if stuffy. – Connor Harris Mar 16 '17 at 21:29
  • Ah, now I see that Laurel posted something similar in her answer. – Connor Harris Mar 16 '17 at 21:30
  • @ConnorHarris maybe all my examples before 1760 are subjunctive. What do you think? – DavePhD Mar 16 '17 at 21:51

The use of "don't" in the third person (as opposed to "dunt", a "doesn't" with a dropped ess) is a feature of the Somerset dialect and accent.

This is a guess... but I'd say that the continued use of "don't" in the third person is related to that dialect and the diaspora of its sea-faring community.

Here's a recording from 80 years ago of a Mendip accent including the use of "donnus" (don't us) at around 54s; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XsB90aJ6Jp8.

  • It would be useful if you could provide evidence of your interesting guess. – user66974 Mar 14 '17 at 9:16
  • I've edited my answer to include an interesting YouTube link. – Mike C Mar 14 '17 at 9:56

I've been researching 19th-century grammar books for the past few months and can tell you none of those I inspected mention "he don't" as a correct form in the indicative. Check out Google books for grammars going back to the 16th century. They are a good source for seeing what was considered proper in earlier periods.

As to "he don't" in Britain, I have heard Brits use this form on multiple occasions, for what it's worth.

  • 1
    By the way, ngrams may present a distorted picture, because "If he don't" or "though he don't" would have been considered valid subjunctive forms in certain contexts. I would be interested if you found a way to distinguish subjunctive "he don't" from indicative nonstandard "he don't". – Brian J Mar 11 '17 at 19:05
  • Uh… are you guys talking about formal writing or vernacular, dialect and idiom, please? From listening to British and reading US English speakers it seems to me axiomatic ‘He don't know where he is going’ is far too common to be dismissed as merely wrong. It might be much further up Maxwell Q. Klinger’s street than Charles Winchester III’s and still, is this a purely academic discussion or what, please? – Robbie Goodwin Mar 11 '17 at 22:05
  • @BrianJ - no I don't think that there is a way to make that distinction, but that doesn't change the nature of my question. – user66974 Mar 12 '17 at 19:33
  • If French grammar books count: "Now it will avail an Englishman but little to know, that of is expressed in French by de, if he don't know which relations of things the prepositions a and de denote in that language " books.google.com/… – DavePhD Mar 16 '17 at 15:54
  • That is subjunctive. 'If' was considered a trigger for the subjunctive. – Brian J Mar 16 '17 at 16:40

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