3

The following is quoted from the preface to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded by Lewis Carroll:

Other critics have objected to certain innovations in spelling, such as ‘ca’n’t’, ‘wo’n’t’, ‘traveler’. In reply, I can only plead my firm conviction that the popular usage is wrong. As to ‘ca’n’t’, it will not be disputed that, in all other words ending in ‘n’t’, these letters are an abbreviation of ‘not’; and it is surely absurd to suppose that, in this solitary instance, ‘not’ is represented by ‘’t’! In fact ‘can’t’ is the proper abbreviation for ‘can it’, just as ‘is’t’ is for ‘is it’. Again, in ‘wo’n’t’, the first apostrophe is needed, because the word ‘would’ is here abridged into ‘wo’: but I hold it proper to spell ‘don’t’ with only one apostrophe, because the word ‘do’ is here complete. As to such words as ‘traveler’, I hold the correct principle to be, to double the consonant when the accent falls on that syllable; otherwise to leave it single. This rule is observed in most cases (e.g. we double the ‘r’ in ‘preferred’, but leave it single in ‘offered’), so that I am only extending, to other cases, an existing rule. I admit, however, that I do not spell ‘parallel’, as the rule would have it; but here we are constrained, by the etymology, to insert the double ‘l’.

I have discussed with my English teacher about writing "cannot" as "ca'n't" but she disagrees as she insisted only one apostrophe is allowed in each word. Does Lewis Carroll's advice on the abbreviation make sense?

  • 1
    What about rock-'n'-roll, then? – PavelAndré Sep 8 at 20:20
  • 2
    Lewis Carrol died in 1898, and our orthography has evolved and become more conventionalized since then. Whether logical or not, we've settled on using one apostrophe in these words. – The Photon Sep 8 at 20:34
  • Bear in mind that Lewis Carroll was English, and was no doubt aware of (and perhaps fond of) a number of English dialects. I have heard (probably exaggerated) English dialects where "cannot" is pronounced (roughly) "kay-n't". I would suspect that Carroll was favoring that pronunciation with his "ca'n't" spelling. – Hot Licks Sep 8 at 21:56
  • 2
    I ca'n't understand why Carroll never uses the abbreviation wi'n't for "will not," given that he seems to believe that, in the strictly logical world of truly correct English, wo'n't always and only stands for "would not." I also wonder whether the contraction wouldn't had somehow slipped his mind at the point where he says, "Again, in ‘wo’n’t’, the first apostrophe is needed, because the word ‘would’ is here abridged into ‘wo’." – Sven Yargs Sep 9 at 3:26
  • I've seen people say similar things about "shan't" vs "sha'n't" (short for "shall not"), often quite vociferously. But the range of contractions allowed in English is based on custom: it's not just an arbitrary thing where you can shorten any word you feel like in any place in a sentence, so it seems likely that spelling would be based on custom too. – Stuart F Sep 9 at 9:11
3

Even Carroll admits, by the word 'innovations' that these spellings are not the usual ones. He had the same rights to change English orthography as any of us have; the method is to use (and explain as necessary) your preferred form, and hope that it catches on. Carroll/Dodgson had certain advantages that most of us do not; he was an Oxford professor, an acknowledged expert in playing with words, and the author of a book that was so popular that Queen Victoria asked him to dedicate his next to her. (The story goes that she was disappointed when it was a learned treatise on mathematics.) Despite all these, none of his innovations seem to have caught on, with the possible exception of traveler which I understand is sometimes used in the United States.

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.