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I couldn't find this exact question, though obviously there are many related questions around using contractions.

I write academic work in a field where contractions are accepted but rare, and no serious reviewer or copyeditor rejects or demands rewrites of a work for using contractions. But, there certainly exist purists who claim that all contractions (well, the ones with apostrophes in them, anyway) are inappropriate in our field and all formal works. I clearly disagree with this attitude, but this isn't a question about who's right in this age-old debate.

What I'm trying to discover, and have thus far failed to, is where this proscription actually comes from. Who first suggested that contractions are inappropriate in formal writing? The proscription isn't in Strunk & White, it's not in APA, it's not in MLA, it's not in CMS, and it's not in the Oxford Style Guide. Certainly any of them'll tell you to be thoughtful about when to use contractions, for instance not using the awkward contraction “them'll”, and surrounding commentary sometimes repeats the banishment as essentially a well-known rule, but the question remains: who's to blame? Is it even known? Is it something that used to be in style guides but was removed in later revisions? Is it something from style guides that are now obsolete?

To me, it seems like someone decided that “stilted” and “formal” are synonyms, and we've been repeating their bad advice for two centuries. I'd like to know who that someone is.

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    Contractions have always been common in poetry, and were often used by medieval scribes, but I can find a lot more people saying use them wisely than never use them. It seems the sort of myth that everyone's heard but can cite no authority. John Hendrickson blames unnamed 18th century grammarians for the prohibition, if anyone fancies digging deeper.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 29, 2021 at 20:00
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    Thanks for linking an actual article; it's helped! In fact, on page three, he does name an author: Jonathan Swift. And, Swift did indeed write about contractions and the elimination thereof, according to the doctoral thesis Language at Work in Jonathan Swift: core.ac.uk/download/pdf/153775779.pdf . I'm a step closer!
    – Gregor
    Jul 29, 2021 at 21:28

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I followed a bit of a rabbit hole from Stuart F's useful comment. It's probably not possible to find a single target to blame, but I've narrowed it down to one event and one influential author in the 1700's:

  • Prior to the Proceedings in Courts of Justice Act 1730, law in England was written in Latin, Norman French, and sometimes English. However, that English was actually “court hand”, which was abbreviated to the point of near illegibility, and total illegibility to non-lawyers, making laws of the era “more difficult to read than Latin records of preceding ages” (per Hendrickson 1971). That act requires that law be “not in any hand commonly called court hand, and in words at length and not abbreviated”. It's doubtful that contractions as we now understand them were among its targets, but they were certainly among its victims in English law. This act is no longer in force, but English and Commonwealth law to this day is completely free of contractions and abbreviation. That proscription may have leaked out of law schools and been imagined as relevant to “formal” language more generally.
  • Jonathan Swift (or as I call him, J'ift) abhorred contractions: “... condemn those barbarous mutilations of vowels and syllables. In this last point the usual pretence is, that they spell as they speak; a noble standard for language! to depend upon the caprice of every coxcomb, who, because words are the clothing of our thoughts, cuts them out, and shapes them as he pleases...” (The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Volume IV). His logic amounts to little more than sneering at the lower classes, but he was doubtless an influential writer of his era, and his words echo still. He was a linguistic prescriptivist more generally (English's first?), wishing “that some Method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever” (A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue). These sources were compiled in Julie Axendra Bishop's 1998 thesis, but the commentary is my own.

There are doubtless others of the same era with similar puritanical views, but Swift's influence and law's force suggests that they're of particular importance. Beyond that, this is essentially a meme; people continue to repeat it as authoritative in spite of all authorities disagreeing.

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  • There’s a world of difference between scribal abbreviations or systems like shorthand on the one hand, and writing random eye-dialect because you personally disagree with standard spelling on the other. Not all ad hoc written “contractions” are covered by one of those two categories, but many of them are.
    – tchrist
    Jul 30, 2021 at 4:34
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    There were still lawyers in the 1920s who were using, presumably standard, abbreviations in legal documents. I remember seeing the vastly overcomplicated deeds to the land on which my parents' house was built in 1928 and the word th'r'b'ts (thereabouts) appeared frequently. It's a long time ago now and I have a suspicion that the contractions did not even contain apostrophes but contractions they certainly were.
    – BoldBen
    Jul 30, 2021 at 7:28
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    @tchrist: One of my sources, Hendrickson 1971, makes the observation that proscriptions of contractions usually claim that they're "from speech", but as you point out, not only is there no evidence of this, but written shorthand is totally independent of speech. Ironically, bans of contractions usually allow lots of contractions that almost certainly arose in speech first: never, neither, none, and such.
    – Gregor
    Jul 30, 2021 at 11:44
  • Porhibiting shorthand makes sense since it's a dialect that few can actually read. But prohibiting contractions and abbreviations is just someone enforcing a pet peeve.
    – Barmar
    Aug 2, 2021 at 18:44

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