What's a clitic?

T’was just weeks before Christmas 2021 when I heard a word I probably should have learned decades ago: “clitic.” It’s a language term. I’m supposed to know those. But this one has eluded me till now — just in time to explain the “t” in my cheery holiday “t’was.”

I’ll let Merriam-Webster sum it up: “Clitic: a word that is treated in pronunciation as forming a part of a neighboring word and that is often unaccented or contracted.”

In most cases, a clitic is a piece of a contraction. The “t” in “t’was.” The “ve” in “could’ve.” The “c” in “c’mon.” The “m” in “I’m.” The “ll” in “this’ll.”

A clitic represents a real word — usually a pronoun, auxiliary verb, determiner or particle. But instead of standing on its own, the clitic influences the pronunciation of a neighboring word. So in “t’was,” you have “t” representing the word “it,” but it’s pronounced like it’s all a single word, “twuzz.”

The clitic can also be pronounced as its own syllable, like “ll” in “that’ll.” Or it can be purely a spoken thing that doesn’t get expressed in written form, like the “t” you hear when someone says “He loves t’ dance” even though they would probably spell out “to” if they wrote it.

Here's more about the clitic in my recent column.