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“Mightn’t” and other negative contractions December 2, 2008

Posted by federalist in Language.

Last week I started to see the contraction “mightn’t” used all over the place in the Wall Street Journal.  It struck me as a little archaic, so I contacted their style editor, Paul Martin, to see what the deal was.  He claimed there was neither a rule change nor an explosion in its use.  In any case, I found their style guide on the subject compelling:

Negative verbs are contracted whenever possible: didn’t instead of did not. (Exceptions are made in cases such as formal declarations.) The contractions help prevent errors where not is accidentally dropped or typed as now.

Hence in these cases we mightn’t need to respect the old rule against using contractions in proper writing.

[Addendum: Paul checked the WSJ database and confirmed that mightn’t has appeared 44 times in the past year and 24 in just the past month, so I wasn’t imagining it!]



1. Path Forward - January 6, 2009

My writer husband loves contractions — I found your blog entry while I was trying to argue against starting a sentence with “mightn’t”!

Might not he have overdone his use of contractions?

He likes “you’ve” and “they’ve” too, among others. I try to edit them out as much as I can.

2. Ken Salvato - February 25, 2009

The phrase shows up again today in an article by Liz Rappaport, “Auto Industry Faces Squeeze From Fed Lending Program.” I’m not on a crusade against contractions, but this particular repeated use of “mightn’t” is a bit irritating.

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