Don't let's

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 17 15:59:07 UTC 2008

At 10:10 AM -0500 1/17/08, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>Didn't someone say earlier, in commenting on something I wrote, that
>"let's" was being used in two senses?  And perhaps that's why
>At 1/16/2008 09:13 PM, Laurence Horn wrote:
>>FWIW, besides the various British hits (Noel Coward's WWII fave
>>"Don't let's be beastly to the Germans";
>sounds OK to me -- permission (although perhaps only because I
>associate it with the British!), and
>>cf. also the celebrated
>>memoir of a Rhodesian girlhood, _Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight_)
>does not -- intention?  I want to change the latter to "Let's Not".
>>and the (I think) aforementioned hit single "Don't Let's Start" from
>>They Might Be Giants (as well as a new U.S. indie movie of the same
>>name currently in production according to IMDb), there's a song that
>>pops up on google, "Don't lets talk about Lisa", by Lonestar.
>>Contemporary, non-British, and featuring the eloquent couplet
>>"Priscilla was a killer/Meaner than Godzilla".
>>You can also find the classic (if non-contemporary) final
>>double-cigarette-lighting scene from "Now Voyager" in which Bette
>>Davis beseeches Paul Henreid, "Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the
>>moon, we have the stars".  Go to YouTube, plug in
>>, listen to Bette as the
>>music wells up behind her, and *then* tell me you want to kick "don't
>>let's" out of the language.
>Did Bette want to deny intention (not "grammatical" for me), or
>request prohibition ("grammatical" for me; and perhaps LH hears it
>the same way, since he wrote "beseeches")?

No, as mentioned below, I never get "don't let's X" as a request for
prohibition; that can only be "don't let us X".  Can you find
examples of the former on google, or in song lyrics, or whatever?

>And I think I want "don't
>let us" if I mean permission and "let's not" if I mean intention, in
>cases where "don't let's" would sound, to my ears, ambiguous.

As I mentioned, I understand *all* instances of "don't let's X" as a
variant of "let's not X", a speaker urging his or her interlocutor(s)
to agree to refrain from Xing.  In Noel C's case, the suggestion is
that the British in general play nice (an ironical suggestion to be
sure, as the full lyrics of the 1943 ditty make clear)--

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When our victory is ultimately won
It was just those nasty Nazis who persuaded them to fight
And their Beethoven and Bach are really far worse than their bite
Don't let's be beastly to the Germans
When we've definitely got them on the run
Let us treat them very kindly as we would a valued friend
We might send them out some Bishops as a form of lease and lend
Let's be sweet to them
And day by day repeat to them
That 'sterilization' simply isn't done.
Let's help the dirty swine again
To occupy the Rhine again
But don't let's be beastly to the Hun.

This is not a request for permission (as in "Don't let us..."), but a
suggestion.  (Note too the contrast between "Don't let's X" and
"Let's Y", the latter being the positive suggestion.)  My claim is
that "Don't let's" can *never* be understood in the former way.  I
grant that many speakers don't get it "Don't let's X" (as a
paraphrase of "Let's not X"), but those who get it at all--Noel
Coward, Bette Davis, me--get it *only* in that sense, never as a
request to a third party to deny permission to a group including the
speaker and some second party to X.   This is an empirical claim; as
I said above, I'll welcome refutation if someone can provide an
attestation of "Don't let's" with the request-for-prohibition
meaning, which seems as unlikely to me as "Let's" meaning 'Allow us
to'.  (The*un*contracted forms, "Let us" and "Don't let us", can be
interpreted either way, but the contracted ones only as lexicalized

>>At 4:51 PM -0800 1/16/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>>I just ran into a male Tucsonite, 43, who's also an "ain't no don't
>>>let's" dialect speaker. BB
>>>Laurence Horn wrote:
>>>>At 4:12 PM -0800 1/16/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>>>>For the record, I'm not drawing a correlation or stating they are the
>>>>>same, simply attempting to describe the reaction I have.
>>>>>Also for the record, here's what I originally wrote:
>>>>>>I'm American and I consider it ungrammatical. BB
>>>>>I think most of this thread was caused by my phrasing. I should have
>>>>>said "...and it's ungrammatical for me" as you suggest. I therefore make
>>>>>it so! Clearly, the way I wrote it implies a wide-ranging judgment that
>>>>>I didn't intend.
>>>>>FWIW, I'd in particular like to hear from people in their twenties or
>>>>>younger on "don't let's" as age may very well be a factor.
>>>>It's not only age, or geography.  My wife, who's 1.5 years older than
>>>>I am and also from N.Y. and Connecticut, is not a "don't let's"
>>>>speaker.  I'd ask my kids but they're not around at the moment, and
>>>>the cats are mum.
>>>>>Laurence Horn wrote:
>>>>>>At 2:33 PM -0800 1/16/08, Benjamin Barrett wrote:
>>>>>>>As far as I can tell, it seems to be akin to doubling up modals, similar
>>>>>>>to saying "I must should". (I know people use that in some dialects, but
>>>>>>>it is still seems ungrammatical for me.) BB
>>>>>>Well, it might be, but there's no correlation in terms of who finds
>>>>>>these grammatical.  (I don't speak double-modal natively, but I might
>>>>>>could learn.)  I'm still not sure (maybe this is what Ron was getting
>>>>>>at) that it makes sense to describe a construction that's widely
>>>>>>attested and that many speakers are comfortable with as
>>>>>>"ungrammatical" tout court, as opposed to "ungrammatical for me".
>>>>>>Maybe this is a tempest in a teapot, but while I'm already somewhat
>>>>>>uncomfortable with the use of "ungrammatical" for forms that are
>>>>>>dialectally restricted, I guess I'm especially sensitive to it when
>>>>>>it's my own dialect which is so characterized!  Don't let's quarrel
>>>>>>about terminology...
>>>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>>The American Dialect Society -
>>The American Dialect Society -
>The American Dialect Society -

The American Dialect Society -

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