Using Contractions: The Long and Short of It
In modern English, contractions are said to happen when parts of words (usually vowel sounds) drop out in speech, and are replaced in print with apostrophes. It’s an extremely common phenomenon. Just look at the first word of that last sentence. Anglophones casually say and write it’s instead of it is all the time. We also use isn’t to mean is not, won’t for will not, and so on. For all their popularity and usefulness, though, contractions are sometimes frowned upon—especially in formal language or in print. This Language Matters instalment outlines some context to keep in mind when it comes to better understanding and using contractions.
What Are Contractions?
First of all, not every form of shortening is officially considered a contraction. The word ma’am, for example, is a contraction of the French loan-word madam, but madam is not seen as a contraction despite being a shortened form of the Latin mea domina (my lady). Ma’am is classified as a contraction because the shortening happened relatively recently within the English language as we know it, and the part of the word that has been dropped or “elided” is accordingly represented in print by an apostrophe. By the same token, we write jack-o’-lantern instead of Jack of the lantern, but we never write about celebrating Halloween o’fresh or decorating our houses o’new. In words like afresh (originally “of fresh”) and anew (originally “of new”), the shortening is more or less buried and forgotten. The contractions involved are simply too old to be remembered in print with apostrophes, so afresh and anew became full-fledged words.
Secondly, it’s good to be clear about the difference between the contraction of is to ’s and the possessive or genitive ’s. The former phenomenon can be seen in the sentence “My dog’s pretty sick.” The latter can be seen in the sentence “I’m worried about my dog’s health.” Now, in theory, the second ’s points to a shortening as well. Linguists commonly see it as the product of an Old English final genitive -es that dropped away, as seen for example in the way “a doges bane” became “a dog’s bone”. Others have suggested that the genitive ’s might represent a lost genitive use of his, in which case “the dog’s bone” could represent in some speakers’ minds a contraction of “the dog his bone”. This idea helps explain why one character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night refers to the local count’s galleys as “the count his galleys”. In either case, the genitive ’s also looks like the product of elision and shortening, but modern English speakers no longer think of dog’s in “the dog’s bone” as a contraction of anything.
Thirdly, it’s good for English learners to build up an intuitive sense of how and when people use contractions. A concern for the right nuance, rhythm, or sense of emphasis can come into play. Uncontracted forms are commonly used to convey a clearer or more definitive tone. For example, when someone says “I do not like that,” they probably want to communicate a stronger sense of dislike than they would by simply saying “I don’t like that.” The emphatic effect of the uncontracted form is particularly noticable is spoken language as a result of the extra stress that often comes with it.
Are Contractions Acceptable in Print?
The question of tone or register becomes crucial when it comes to thinking about contractions in writing. In general, writing is traditionally seen as more timeless and therefore impersonal than speech. Most people expect English to look a bit more formal on the page, especially if they’re supposed to take it seriously. Scientific and scholarly texts therefore have a stronger tendency to avoid contractions, and even everyday publications like newspapers use them much more sparingly than English speakers do face-to-face. As the Guardian and Observer Style Guide puts it, publishers have a fear that using too many contractions can “make a serious article look frivolous”. The Guardian Guide therefore cautions against the “overuse” of even common contractions like can’t, and condemns unusual printed contractions like there’ve as “horrific”.
The point for our purposes here is that—while some sticklers will insist on never using contractions in writing—the rules aren’t actually black and white, and there are hierarchies of acceptability involved. Generally speaking, the more a contraction sticks out, the worse it looks. Contractions like can’t and don’t are overwhelmingly common in speech, and they can often make the flow of a written sentence smoother. You might therefore find them in a newspaper or a school textbook. In fact, refusing to use a ubiquitous contraction like don’t can sometimes make a text sound oddly wooden to native speakers. Resources like the Chicago Manual of Style (and Antidote’s own guides) therefore recommend using such contractions unless you’re aiming for a particular emphasis or a very formal tone. Lower in the hierarchy of written contractions are those with ’ve for “have”, such as should’ve, and ’d for “had”, such as they’d. These contractions are highly unlikely to appear in a scientific article. Meanwhile, non-standard contractions such as ain’t and casual variations on existing contractions such as shoulda are strictly reserved for informal language.
Contractions in Writing
|Widely used and accepted||Often used, but less formal||Informal only|
|Contractions with n’t like can’t, won’t, doesn’t, didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t, etc.||Contractions of the verb have like should’ve, could’ve, would’ve||Double contractions like I’d’ve for I would have, or shouldn’t’ve for should not have|
|Don’t is by far the most common of these, and do not can often sound oddly formal today.||Contractions of the verb to be like I’m, you’re, he’s, she’s, it’s, we’re, they’re||Casual contracted forms like ain’t, shoulda, coulda, woulda, gonna, wanna|
Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Use Contractions
Contractions are a normal and useful part of living language. Modern English speakers seldom worry about using them in speech. We do, however, need to think about contractions when they appear on the page, partly because they can have an impact on the tone and register of our writing—which can in turn be seen as an indication of how seriously a reader is supposed to take it. In practice, though, there is no hard and fast rule on which contractions (or how many) are acceptable in print. It’s good to get a feeling for how common a contraction is if you want to know how acceptable it will look to people in print. It’s also important to know if you’re supposed to be following a particular style guide’s standards for using contractions. The point is that you should not be afraid to use them in writing here and there. Or maybe we should say you shouldn’t be afraid.
Find a detailed description of the rules and conventions of the English language in Antidote’s language guides.