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Filing Cabinet - Jamestown

Writing Style of Elizabeth and Abigail in Adventures in Jamestown :

The use of the contraction and the possessive in speech and writing in 17th Century America

We are quite comfortable using contractions in both our speech and our writing—both our formal writing and our informal writing.  Contractions such as won’t, haven’t, and it’s sound familiar; whereas, will not, have not, and it is sound formal and a bit stilted. However, that wasn’t always the case.

 Contractions were not used in diaries, journals or letters in England or the new colony until the mid-17th century, and even then, the only contraction used was it’s or ‘tis.  It wasn’t until the 18th century that contractions became more commonplace in both speech and writing. 

A review of original primary source documents (in the spelling and syntax of that day) such as letters and reports written before 1615, reveals no use of contractions, although there is use of possessives.  You might be interested in reading the first hand accounts such as letters and reports written before 1615 that are available online.  These include reports by some fairly uneducated persons such as Henry Spelman, the young boy traded by Captain John Smith to the Powhattan Indians. 


Contractions were not generally used until after 1640 in writing, and even then it was primarily the use of “it’s”.  Though the use of it’s instead of  ‘tis begins to gain ground in letters and diaries mid-17th century and in literary prose, it does not become widely used until the latter half of the 18th century.

It appears that the use of the possessive was more common earlier in the 17th century.   Although the original spelling version of William Strachey’s voluminous report of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture and the early days of the third supply of the colony does not use very many possessives, there are a few examples, albeit without any apostrophe:

This source or confluence of water was so violent, as it rusht and carried the Helm-man from the Helme, and wrested the Whipstaffe out of his hand, which so flew from side to side, that when he would haue ceased the same againe, it so tossed him from Star-boord to Larboord, as it was Gods mercy it had not split him:

: for which were two apparant reasons to stay them euen in this place; first, abundance by Gods prouidence of all manner of good foode: next, some hope in reasonable time, when they might grow weary of the place, to build a small Barke,

Pon his Lordships landing at the South gate of the Pallizado (which lookes into the Riuer), our Gouernour caused his Company in armes to stand in order, and make a Guard: : his Lordship landing,

 fell vpon his knees, and before vs all, made a long and silent Prayer to himselfe, and after, marched vp into the Towne, where at the Gate, I bowed with the Colours, and
let them fall at his Lordships feete, who passed on into the Chappell, where he heard a Sermon by Master Bucke, our Gouernours Preacher;

After the reading of his Lordships Commission, Sir Thomas Gates rendred vp vnto his Lordship his owne Commission,

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