The February 18th-24th edition of The Economist has an article titled "Neurons v free will" in which the author, Anthony Gottlieb begins by quoting Dr. Johnson's statement about free will:

"Sir ... we know our will is free, and there's an end on't."

Gottlieb echoes the archaism (?) in the last paragraph of his article:

Stepping back from investigations of the brain to look at our actions in the context of everyday life isn't quite the clincher that Dr Johnson would have liked. But it is a good beginning on't."

Clearly the writer uses the contraction on't here as part of a stylistic bookend to the opening quote. Just as clearly, though, the apostrophe was meant in print to indicate the spoken suppression of an unstressed syllable: ont vs. on it.

From Google NGrams I observe that the printed use of the contraction was never great and is in fact dying out, although it has maintained a surprising persistence nonetheless, waiting till the last 30 years or so before flatlining completely.

Use of on't vs. on it in English

Still, the large disparity could be due to other factors, such as the arguable preference of book editors and writers to favor spelling out clearly the words involved in many phonological contractions. Consider how often a phrase that is pronounced it was raining cats 'n' dogs is rendered in print as it was raining cats and dogs. Even more to the point, words ending in -ing are normally printed with the final g but often spoken without it: something's going on is often heard as somethin's goin' on.

My question, mainly to speakers of British English since I have never heard the contraction used in the U.S., is whether this phonological "short'nin'" survives in the speech of any British dialect today. Can anyone put an end on't for me?

  • I don't know for sure, but possibly in northern England. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 15:17
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    @Barrie England: I suspect tv/radio/movies/literature sometimes conflate dialectisms and archaisms, and (like Hollywood doing British regional accents) they don't always care much about "accuracy". So everyone ends up thinking the normal speech patterns for people at the other end of the country are somehow stuck in a C19 timewarp. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 15:26
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    @Robusto: I'm not qualified to give an actual answer here, but my opinion, backed up by many years of paying attention to actual regionalisms I hear when people are speaking in their "natural voice", is that few if any living speakers say on't - except educated people facetiously echoing archaisms such as Johnson's famous dismissal as cited by you. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 15:39
  • In response to my inquiry, I've just had an assertion that it's still to be heard in Yorkshire. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 17:00
  • Around Selby, I'm now told. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 17:18

2 Answers 2


Most likely "on't" is just an abbreviation for the usual pronunciation of "on it", namely /'ɔnət/.

English writers just don't seem to feel any necessity to have a written contraction for "on it" any more, is all.

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    Johnson and others seem to have used it to mean ‘of it’, rather than ‘on it’. Of this use of 'on', the OED notes that it is ‘archaic and regional’, but there’s a citation as late as 1992: ‘Well I finds they glass jiggamies in attic look an takes they home well nigh fifty on 'em’. Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 18:34
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    It was one syllable. Either that, or the meter doesn't scan in this poem: When in the latter mood one day, // He squeezed his hand and swore to pay— // “But when?”—“Next month.—You may depend on't // My dearest Snipps, before the end on't— Note that here the first on't means "on it" and the second "of it", as @Barrie remarks. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 15:14
  • Interesting point. That seems to show that in at least one case, it was likely to represent one syllable; of course, it's poetry, and they make a forced rhyme, and both are contracted (so they could both be either one or two syllables), but it's probably evidence pro monosyllabicity in that case. Commented Feb 26, 2012 at 17:15

I haven't seen that usage before, but the abbreviation you are talking about still occurs in British English, and mainly in the Yorkshire area.

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