or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Let's Talk

Yesterday, Slate.com posted a story about Dell's battery recall, the largest in the history of consumer electronics. The home page contained this sub-head:

It's the biggest consumer-electronics recall in history, but don't lets make a fuss.

"Lets" should have been "let's", since it's originally a contraction of "let us": someone wasn't paying attention, and tsk tsk. What struck me was the idiomatic "don't let's", because it sounds odd to me: in my part of the world, the invariable way of expressing that idea is "let's not".

The invaluable Bartleby.com has this to say about the situation:

There are three negative idioms: Let’s not stay, Don’t let’s stay, and Let’s don’t stay. All are Standard, although Let’s don’t is more typically American than Don’t let’s, which is more typically British.

Is it the case that "let's not" is more typically Canadian? It's all I've ever heard. (Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says that "let's not" is "widely used", and thereafter agrees with Bartleby.)

It's tempting to say that the one we're most used to is the most logical, or sounds then best, and the others are weird; that's how I feel, a little bit. But "let's not" is probably the most grammatically defensible: "We will stay / we will not stay": "let us stay / let us not stay". (This is particularly true if you consider "let's" to be the rough structural equivalent to "shall we": "Let's go" = "Shall we go?", "Let's not go" = "Shall we not go?") "Don't let's" is also defensible on the face of it: "do not let us stay". In comparison, "let's don't" is very odd indeed when you break it down, and in fact Webster's notes that one grammarian has called it "an illiteracy". (Something the Bartleby article doesn't address is which form is used when the idiom is a complete sentence: what does someone say in response to "Let's jump off the roof!"? "Let's not!" sounds right to me--though I concede it what's I've used all my life--whereas "Don't let's!" and "Let's don't!" both sound strange.)

But hey, they're all idioms. If, as Bartleby says, they're all standard (or Standard), then there's no point in analyzing them: we just use whichever we grew up with, which, in my case, means "Let's not argue about this".


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