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Language Arts

Won't and Will Not

Won’t and will not don’t look like an obvious match for words that are connected, let alone nearly identicalThis article explains how to use "won't" and "will not" appropriately in sentences. Read on to discover more about this odd couple "won't" or "will not."

The Construction of Won’t

The pattern of contraction for verbs and the negative adverb not is very regular in most instances. You first write the contraction, then the n of not, then an apostrophe, followed by the t of not. This is true for all of the following examples: isn’t, aren’t, wasn’t, weren’t, hasn’t, haven’t, hadn’t, can’t, couldn’t, don’t, doesn’t, didn’t, mayn’t, mightn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, daren’t, and needn’t.

There are only two  of the most frequently used verb + negative adverb examples that don’t work like this: shan’t and won’t. Let’s look at how they differ from the majority of examples and then try to understand why.

Shan’t and Won’t

Shan’t is the contraction of shall not, while won’t is defined as the contraction of will not. Look at what happens when we add the negative adverb to each one:

shall + not (take away ll; take away o) ---> shan’t

Now, why aren’t there two apostrophes, you may want to know, since two letters are removed in one place and one in another place: why isn’t it sha’n’t? The fact is that at one time it was - as recently as the Twentieth Century. Perhaps people who didn’t understand the role of the apostrophe “misspelled” it or brought it into line by copying the pattern of the majority of verb/negative adverb contractions.

And what about won’t:

will + not (take away ill) ---> w’not rather than won’t

What’s going on here? The fact is that the contraction won’t was created when an older form of will not was in use. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, won’t was formed from woll not, an earlier form of will not. Knowing this, we can now set up our diagram of the formation of the contraction like this:

woll + not (take away ll; take away o) ---> won’t

And we can see that it is formed identically to shan’t. So did won’t at one time have a double apostrophe as well? Yes: at one time, the correct spelling (or a correct spelling) was wo’n’t.

Now that you know the history, it should be easier to connect won’t with will not.

Choosing Won’t or Will Not

So the next question is, when should you choose to use one rather than the other, given that their meanings are identical. There are two guidelines to help you decide this.

First, there is a general tendency for formal language to eschew contractions, along with certain other language elements, like informal diction and slang (gonna for going to;  babelicious); non-standard orthography (donut for doughnut; lite for light); and elliptical expressions or dropping of elements that are required in formal English (Going running today? for Are you going to go running today?). This is true both of formal prose and formal speech. You will find that colloquial language, particularly speech, is more likely to contain contractions.

Second, even in colloquial speech and writing, there may be times when the context of the sentence means that the word not should receive special emphasis. The speaker or writer might want to emphasize not as an attempt at persuasion or from strong emotion, for example. But not doesn’t receive the same emphasis when it is encapsulated with the verb in a contraction.  Here are some examples of cases in which you might want to separate not in order to emphasize it. Compare the two versions and see what you think:

1a. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask: I will not wear a clown nose to the office party.

1b. It doesn’t matter how many times you ask: I won’t wear a clown nose to the office party.

2a. Are you kidding? No! I will not go out with you!!

2b. Are you kidding? No! I won’t go out with you!!