double contractions

In the last post, I looked at of instead of have after modal verbs--as in should of gone and might of known--in contrast to the more standard spelling of the contraction 've: should've gone, might've known.  As we saw there, the of spelling was more prevalent in British online writing than American.

I promised then to look at what happens after negation. Here are the options (sticking with contracted have):
could not 've could not of
couldn't 've couldn't of
Again, I'm looking for these in the GloWBE corpus of English from the web. When I search for the of variants, I have to specifically search for a verb after the of in order to block out things like of course or of necessity, where the of isn't standing for have.

The full not versions in the first row of the table offer no surprises. Just as with the modals, there are more of spellings in the British than in the American (126 v 86).
The double-contracted versions in the bottom row get a bit more attention because I've been wanting to investigate the prevalence of double contractions, like n't've and 'd've. I use them quite a bit in writing and often get comments on them, so I've wondered if they're a more American thing. It's important here to remember that we're talking about writing, not speech. I'm not wondering if people say couldn't've--they do. I'm wondering whether they're (orig. AmE) ok with writing it.
First, the expected news: the of variants are more common in BrE, just as they were in the non-negated data. 85 American occurrences v 170 BrE.  Here's the top of the results table:

As you can see, some verbs show greater numbers with AmE, but this is to be expected because the numbers are small and because some of the verbs are used more in AmE than BrE--like figured, which is cut off the table. What's most important is the fact that the British total is twice as high as the American.

Is that just because BrE uses the present perfect (the reason for the have/'ve/of in these verb strings) more than AmE does? If that were so, we'd expect for the 've form to be more typical of British too, but that's not the case:

The tables in the previous post make this case more strongly, since here have the complication of whether people avoid writing double contractions. To test this a bit further, I've looked for another double contraction: 'd've, as in If I knew you were coming, I'd've baked a cake.

This table is a bit confusing because I searched for *'d 've. The 'd  is supposed to be separated from the word before in the corpus, but obviously that didn't happen all the time. So, the first line includes all the I'd'ves and and other things and the lower lines are other items that hadn't been input in the corpus in the right way and aren't included in the first line. It looks like the British part of the corpus suffers a bit more from bad coding of double-contractions. So, looking at the 'total' line at the bottom, there are more AmE double contractions, but not that many more: 67 versus 60.

Looking again at whether of is used instead of 've, it's still more British (59 total) than American (26 total) after 'd. Here's the top of the list:

So, it's not looking like British writers avoid double contractions all that much more than American writers--unless writing of instead of 've is part of an avoidance strategy. 

I found it interesting in the sheet music pictured above (and more than one version of it), it has been printed with a space before the 've. That's another solution--and perhaps that was more common in earlier days? The corpus would not distinguish between the space-ful version and space-less.

And on that note:


  1. On another note, I always thought it should've been: "(If I'd Known You Were Coming) I'd've Baked a Cake"...

  2. If you listen to this version, you hear in the very first repetition "If I ha-knew"; i.e. If I had knew rather than either if I knew or if I had known, and a sort of compromise between them. All the later repetitions, though, are plainly "If I knew".

  3. All of which just puts me in mind of the fascinating grammatical car crash that is "If I hadn't'a done that..." (BrE, primarily Estuary I think. If the /t/ is glottalised it becomes "haddna" or "haddnuv".)

    Some kind of merging of "If I hadn't done that" and "I wouldn't('ve/of) done that", presumably.

  4. (Although it does lend a nice symmetry to "If I'd'a known you were coming, I'd'a baked a cake"...)

  5. I've known Americans write "If I would have done such-and-such" where I'd've written (see what I did there?) "If I had done such-and-such"

  6. I just want someday to witness a pedant confront someone over it.

    "If I hadn't of done that, then-"
    "Actually, it's hadn't have. No, wait, that's... what?" *head explodes*

  7. Mrs. Redboots, "If I had done such-and-such" is also the correct usage in North America. The improper use of the past perfect conditional is rampant though (e.g. "If I would have known, then [XYZ]"), and it drives me nuts to see how frequently the incorrect structure is used both in real life and in movies -- even by characters who are supposed to be language pendants!

  8. Lynne, I'm surprised that you're surprised at the space between the two elements of n't 've I wouldn't think of spelling it any other way. Indeed I wouldn't 've thought of doing so.

  9. Returning to Michael Taft's Blues Concordance, I find several examples of reduced I would have, but not with 've. Rather have is reduced to 'a' — compared;e to coulda, mighta etc.

    Strangely, Taft interprets this as a prefix, but it makes more grammatical sense as a reduced have. Still Taft spells them:

    If I had a-listened : to my second mind
    I don't believe I'd a-been here : wringing my hands and crying

    Boys if I only had ten hundred dollars : I'd a-laid it up on my shelf
    I'd bet anybody pass my house : that one round Joe would knock him out

    On the other hand, Blind Willie McTell (a literate singer, despite his blindness) uses a in if-clauses. So either Taft is right after all, or I'd a represents I would have.

    Now if I had a-listened : to what my three women said
    I'd a-been home sleeping : in a doggone feather bed

    Leave me alone baby : best you can do
    I would have been a murderer : if I'd a-fooled around with you

    Pretty close to Johnny E's example

    If I hadn't'a done that

  10. Mrs. Redboots, "If I had done such-and-such" is also the correct usage in North America. The improper use of the past perfect conditional is rampant though (e.g. "If I would have known, then [XYZ]"), and it drives me nuts to see how frequently the incorrect structure is used both in real life and in movies -- even by characters who are supposed to be language pendants!

    I'm with you, Laura. For most Americans the subjunctive is terra incognita.

    David: not much doubt in my mind that in these blues songs a- references have and isn't some kind of colorful but meaningless vocal prefix. On the other hand, you can never be sure about the vocal habits of singers. As a teenager listening to the country-rock group The Band, I found it impossible not to notice that one of its vocalists, Levon Helm, had a habit of pronouncing the word ever as if it were every. To this day I have no idea what compelled him to do so.

  11. The thing about these double contractions is that in AmE they're spoken all the time, but almost never written. I've never written one, and can't remember seeing them written before this.

  12. Dick Hartnell

    Glad you agree with me. I hoped one or two of the songs might be on YouTube; it turns out that all four are. Listen if you wish and confirm our transcription.

    Blind Lemon Jefferson Corinna Blues

    Memphis Minnie He's In The Ring (Doing The Same Old Thing

    Blind Willie McTell Three Women Blues

    Blind Willie McTell It's Your Time To Worry

  13. I'm an American, and I definitely write double contractions like wouldn't've in informal writing (personal emails, texts). I was once chided by a woman on an online dating site for doing so, though, so I suspect the legitimacy of this is questionable to some people.

    I probably wouldn't use a double contraction when writing in a higher register, though. In fact, the Chicago Manual (section 5.103) specifically lists I'd've and she'd've as examples of "less common contractions" that are best avoided (except in dialog).

    Dick and David:

    The a in these blues lyrics is absolutely 've. This isn't merely a vocal habit of this singer; its rather ubiquitous American pronunciation, I think:

    "I would have" contracts to "I'd've" in writing but is pronounced "Ida" (just like the woman's name).

    "I would have" also can contract to "I would've" in writing which would be pronounced "I woulda."

    "I would not have" contracts to "I wouldn't've" in writing but would be pronounced close to "wooden a" (with both the t and the v elided).

    "I would not have" can't contract to *"I'dn't've," though, I don't think.

    1. I'dn't've makes me giggle; it's delightfully silly. In it's actual usage, am I correct in assuming that it's contracted differently in BrE and Can/AmE? Whether or not it's followed by "have", I feel like I hear British people contract "I had not..." to "I'd not", whereas we North Americans are more apt to use "I hadn't". Then again, it could just be my sample set falling into particular patterns.

  14. Laura, click on the 'contractions' tag at the bottom of the post, and you'll be taken (after scrolling down some) to a post on that.

  15. "could have" NOT "could of" ... God Save My Pedantic Soul !

  16. Joel & Laura, BrE doesn't allow 'dn't, let alone 'dn't've. More generally, BrE doesn't allow n't after a contracted verb. We may contract the verb (e.g. I'll not, he's not) or the "not" (e.g. I won't, he isn't), but not both (*I'lln't, *he'sn't).

  17. The "If I knew you were" reminds me of an odd difference in formal English I think I picked up when I started listening to the World Service when I still lived in the US.

    I was raised by a strict prescriptivist mother to use the subjunctive in counterfactuals (among other places). So to use examples from song, she always hated the Mamas and the Papas for saying "if I was in LA" instead of "if I were in LA". The fact that They Might Be Giants sang "If I were a carpenter..." did not win her over to their music.

    But while listening to the BBC, I always heard presenters and newsreaders say things like "If he was". I assumed they'd have been as strict as my mother. Does British English not use the subjunctive in the same way?

  18. Rosie, I think many of us do contact both the he is part and the not part in casual rapid speech. It's just that we have the sense not to attempt to reflect it in spelling.

    One alphabetical writing system is much like another, but English exhibits the odd unique (or maybe just rare) feature at the margins including the case in point. Normally we (like writers of other languages) use spelling to represent words, but this conflicts with our desire to add a hint of speech style.

    • One problem with this is that the 'full' variant often carries connotations of exceptional formality. So instead of he is not, we substitute he isn't or (mostly in BrE) he's not. This signals an absence of formality and possibly the particular rhythm we hear inwardly.

    • Another problem is that the informal, contracted form sounds very different from the all-word variant; won't, for example, is a long way from sounding like will not.

    • A possible extra problem is our hag-ups with shall and will. Forms like I shall not sound and look her-formal, but I will in known ton be dubiously acceptable. But I'll is perfectly safe in writing — and a better representation of what we actually say.

    Even before the Internet, writing in a speech-like style was vey much on the up — along with more general moves to informality. The impulse to signal informality gets a considerable boost when we're trying to communicate on line. So contractions become the default norm of spelling.

    And yet, and yet. English doesn't do contractions by substituting a different all-word spelling. Rather we use the dreaded apostrophe.

    This device seems quite benign in spellings like can't, which signals clearly that we don't mean cant. However, apostrophes come at a processing-price and eventually the misuses cancel out the pluses. Following the logic of the modern English apostrophe, we used to write sha'n't Better sense prevailed and we now restrict the apostrophes to shan't. i don't know how may people write and fo'c's'le. but I suspect the number is dwindling. Two apostrophes constitute a pain to the eyes, which impedes rather than promoting legibility.

    That, I feel sure, is why nobody writes *he'sn't and most BrE writers shun shouldn't've'.

  19. Anonymous,

    Does British English not use the subjunctive in the same way?

    My impression is that the subjunctive is still reasonably common in If I were, but rarely heard after grammatical subjects other than I.

    There's also a marked BrE~AmE difference in other vestigial subjunctives; that he be.. is rare and that he not be... is rarer still.

    For most of us, i believe, If I were vs If I was is a stylistic choice.

  20. The subjunctive is second in my to-blog list.

  21. Scotland is the home of expressions such as 'It wisnae me! I didna do it!'
    Are there any Scots who could say whether 'would of', 'wouldn't've' and so on, are found in Scottish speech and writing?

  22. When I was teaching English as a foreign language some years ago another teacher, who was Australian (hello Ben!), expressed surprise at seeing the "If I had" construction on the syllabus as he had apparently never even heard it used and always said "If I would have", as he believed all Australians did. I wonder if any Aussies read this blog -- or maybe there's a parallel blog elsewhere?

  23. "I'd not" or "I hadn't" (Laura's comment above) - also "I'll not" or "I won't", etc.. The distinction in England is I think regional. Brought up in the South I never used to hear the former versions.
    In the original article: "it's not looking like British writers avoid double contractions..." Now there's a usage that only recently made it into polite society.

  24. How Levon Helm is supposedt've pronounced 'ever' as 'every' is way off-topic, but it was brought up by Dick Hartzell above so I had to investigate, (which I maybe oughtn't've done).

    I didn't check ever song he every sang, but on at least two, Up on Cripple Creek ("A drunkard's dream if I ever did see one"), and The River Hymn, ("Who'd ever want to let go?"), he uses the regulation, rhymes-with-sever way of saying it. If he consistently did otherwise, I'd love to hear some examples.

  25. Or possibly Dick just got it backwards and meant Helm said "ever" for "every", a well known regional thing.

    Never mind!

  26. What about e.g. "wouldn't 'ave" - my guess is that's more common in written BrE than double-contracting it all into one word.

  27. Unknown: I looked that up in relation to a query on the previous blog post (in the comments there). There are very few 'ave in the data, and they seem to represent dialectal 'h'-dropping, rather than contraction, in that they occur in places where contraction couldn't occur--like at the start of a question.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)