By Joe Diorio
The character of Mr. Data on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” an android played by actor Brent Spiner, did not use contractions when he spoke. It was a linguistic trick used by the writers of that television series to emphasize that Data was a machine, albeit a very lifelike one.
Star Trek’s writers also had some fun with an alternative Data character, specifically his evil twin brother, Lore, (yes, there was an “evil Data”) who did use contractions when he spoke. That was another linguistic trick to help viewers tell the two characters – both played by Mr. Spiner with the help of special effects – apart.
OK, a quick mea culpa. The writers occasionally slipped up and put a contraction or two in Mr. Data’s dialogue, as this blog points out in a level of detail only die-hard fans of the Star Trek universe would appreciate.
That said, to address the elephant in the room, Mr. Data would have said “I do not see why it would not be Russia” while Lore would have said “I don’t see why it wouldn’t be Russia.”
The use – or non-use – of contractions is understandable. They are a part of language that have been a part of the spoken word for well over 400 years. Today they make us sound more conversational, and they probably shave a millisecond or two off the time it takes to write some sentences or phrases.
The earliest contractions were used in the seventh century, in the language of Old English. That’s what everyone spoke when Beowulf was a best-seller … or best-listen, since scholars suspect that epic story was first told as a campfire story in the pre-flashlight-in-the-face time.
Some of the contractions used in Old English include:
Nis for Neis or is not
Naefde for ne haefde or did not have
Naes for ne weaes or was not
Nolde for ne wolde or would not (See what I just did there?)
One wonders if Beowulf would have said “Yfel wîtan forhwon yfel sîn Grendel’s sweostor.” (Translation: “I don’t see why I wouldn’t be Grendel’s father.”) But I digress.
Old English faded away, but contractions certainly did not. Shakespeare loved them:
Doth/do or does
Fare you well/good bye
Prithee/I pray thee or I ask thee
Whit/a bit or piece
Since the character of Mr. Data was highly cerebral, it comes as no surprise that academic writing shuns the use of contractions. A blog for the American Psychological Association Publication Manual, one of the cornerstone reference guides for scholarly scribes, gives a Miss Thistlebottom “tisk tisk” to the use of contractions, cautioning “Contractions are a part of informal writing. Thus, avoid contractions in scholarly writing.”
As with any part of our language, there are exceptions – reproduction of dialect and quotations, an academic paper specifically about contractions, and use of idioms (“don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), to name a few.
Let’s write carefully – really carefully – out there, people.