I came across the word sha'n't when reading Winnie the Pooh the other day and it cast me into a Thoughtful Mood concerning the Appropriate Spelling of this word.

This word is a contraction of "shall not", with the ll and the o removed. Where, then, do the apostrophes belong?

Here are the three options that I see:

  • shan't: this is consistent with other -n't words and seems to be what is typically used. But what about the ll?

  • sha'n't: clearly, the Best Literature uses this form. This would seem a logical form to have it in, for are there not two places where letters have been omitted?

  • sha'nt: based upon the prevailing wisdom of my primary school, the first position in which letters are omitted is where the apostrophe, of which there should be only one, should go. However, it doesn't feel right in this case. Also concerning the matter of having only one apostrophe, perhaps that was intended as one per word. Or perhaps it's just nonsense, additionally considering such words as fo'c'sle.

One article I found on this matter was the Wiktionary article on sha'n't:

This came briefly into use at the end of the eighteenth century. It is not an older form of the contraction, though, as shan't predates it in print by about a century. (Source: World Wide Words [1])

It then proceeds to call sha'n't a "nonstandard spelling of shan't". The Wiktionary article I consider myself quite at liberty to discard, for A. A. Milne was using sha'n't in the 1920s, a decade which I would not generally consider to be at the end of the eighteenth century. In fact, it seems to me they're blatantly misquoting the article cited, which speaks of it occurring in the nineteenth century plus a few years either side of it.

So then: which are appropriate? What are the general rules concerning where the apostrophes should go in contractions? Why isn't English consistent? Why isn't Winnie the Pooh mandatory reading for all English speakers? (Discard the last two questions if you wish.)

I am not generally inclined to give all that they say credence, naturally, for they are the same schools that teach the Victorian cursive letter forms and that two spaces should exist between sentences; that aught else is a travesty on the English language and that you probably won't get your pen license if you don't do it these ways—not that I ever did get mine.

  • 3
    Your question has put me in a Thoughtful Mood. +1
    – JAM
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 2:25
  • See also: english.stackexchange.com/questions/50/…
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 2:54
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    If you insist on an apostrophe for every missing letter, it would be fo'c's'le, which clearly carries things too far. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 4:20
  • Forecastle indeed.
    – user19589
    Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 5:13
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    Indeed, forecastle can be written as fo'c's'le; I went for fo'c'sle as it is the style that I believe I have come across more regularly. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 5:17

2 Answers 2


An apostrophe generally indicates an omission, but in this case I would favour shan't over sha'n't for readability and consistency.

Sha'nt looks wrong, and I've never heard that their should only be a single apostrophe at the first omission.

Looking for a "general rule", an article called That Cute Li'l Ol' Apostrophe that claims:

We never use more than one apostrophe to a word.

While the general rule is to use the apostrophe in place of the last missing letter, such as in "shall not -> shan't", if we need to choose between missing letters that we'd normally pronounce and those that are silent, use the apostrophe to denote the missing sounds.

Another claims the following:

Well. at first glance, it appears to me that our way of ‘making’ contractions is to 1) lop off the last half of the first word and 2) smash it together with the “not”, contracting the “o” with an apostrophe. See for yourself…

shan’t= shall (minus the “-ll”) + not (minus the “o”) = sha n’t

Which is then moved together (sha->n’t) to spell: shan’t. Personally, I believe that this contraction (judging by the way we use the word, and say it) is an ‘evolved creature’ from the two contractions “shouldn’t” and “can’t”; as opposed to its parentage being shall and not. It just makes more sense. [Shouldn’t + can’t= shan’t]

The OED lists both shan't and sha'n't as colloquial contractions of shall not, but not sha'nt. Shan't appears in 139 quotations, sha'n't appears in 25, and sha'nt is in only five.

Project Gutenberg's out-of-copyright books are usually older and don't necessarily reflect contemporary use, but searching their August 2003 CD of 600 ebooks: there are 589 results in 103 books for for shan't, 122 results in 29 books for sha'n't, and only three results in two books for sha'nt.

Another common contraction, won't, comes from woll not (an archaic version of will not). It also has two chunks of letters omitted. Should this be wo'n't or wo'nt? Motivated Grammar writes:

Did the contractions won’t and shan’t spring into English fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s noggin? No, interestingly. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (printed in 1855), has wo’n't, as do some (modern) editions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and The Ohio Educational Monthly in an article from 1868. Likewise, sha’n't was commonplace in the old days, plastered across the pages of the dreadful Victorian novels that I had to read in AP English as a lesson as to what happens to those who show an interest in reading. Books like Evelina; or, The history of a young lady’s entrance into the world (why did every single book in those days have to have a subtitle?)

Now the interesting thing is that won’t and shan’t live side-by-side with wo’n't and sha’n't in these old books. Some quick results on Google Books between 1600 and 1800: 777 won’ts, 57 wo’n'ts; 216 shan’ts, 73 sha’n'ts. Between 1600 and 1700: 48 won’ts, no wo’n'ts; 1 each of shan’t and sha’n't. So it seems it was never the case that the multiple-apostrophe form was more common. For some reason or another, English writers have always preferred a single apostrophe over strict application of “put apostrophes wherever a letter’s missing”. (Michael Quinion guesses that the double-apostrophe form was a later edition, suggested by logic-minded grammarians, that died out because it was a pain to write and looked weird.)

Quinion pointed out shan't is actually older than sha'n't and summarised:

The abbreviation, as you say, strictly demands the extra apostrophe, and it was probably the influence of logically minded eighteenth-century grammarians who persuaded many people to put the extra one in to start with — but whenever did logic ultimately matter in language?

So: the rules aren't really clear, but shan't is the most common, sha'n't is somewhat old fashioned, and sha'nt is extremely rare.

Why isn't English consistent?

Because it's evolved from a big mish-mash of several other languages over some 1,500 years.

Why isn't Winnie the Pooh mandatory reading for all English speakers?

Because nothing is mandatory reading for all English speakers. If Winnie the Pooh is mandatory reading, what else should be mandatory? Where do you stop? The only mandatory reading for English speakers should be the English language.

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    (why did every single book in those days have to have a subtitle?) ... probably because they didn't have dustjackets with a publisher's blurb to tell you what the book was about. Commented Oct 5, 2012 at 14:44
  • The comparison with won't is a good point. Your second citation, about the personal opinion of the author that "[Shouldn’t + can’t= shan’t]," seems quite dubious; it doesn't seem to be supported by any other sources and I don't really see what it adds to your answer.
    – herisson
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 20:14

In fiction and certain types of literature, anything goes. Regardless of whether something is grammatically correct or not, it doesn't matter. Just take a look at James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake." When I first looked at that, it was a total mess. Well, it's still a mess, but everyone knows that's the way he writes, and he owned it.
When you master something, and eventually surpass it, you are allowed to break the rules. That's why we read masters of literature. They received the right to break the rules and write their own way to add flavor to their fiction.

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    Anything most certainly does not go. All our great writers have written grammatically. Where, for example, did you ever see one who placed a definite or indefinite aricle after a noun rather than before it? 'Finnegan's Wake' is an experimental and highly unusual work. It would be quite mistaken to draw general conclusions from it. Commented Jun 18, 2012 at 6:51
  • Do you mean to tell me that all poetry is written grammatically? As are all theatrical plays? The ones that really make a name for themselves and stand out do not ALL follow every rule of grammar, as you so state. If they do, their own unique flavor would certainly be lost, and be a bore to read. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 21:59
  • Oh and by the way, my answer was merely meant to answer Chris Morgan's original question, and not to challenge every written book on grammar - though I still stand by my original statement about fiction and certain types of literature. And "Finnegans Wake" is considered a masterpiece. It's a classic. One might not be able to draw general conclusions from it, but it cannot be thrown entirely out of the equation either. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 22:39
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    If there's one book in which it is not true that anything goes, it's Finnegans Wake. Most of the time we save a lot of effort by following the standard spelling and punctuation, while Joyce took a lot more pains with that book.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 2, 2015 at 19:17

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