[This article originally appeared in the December 2005 (Vol. 28, No. 12) issue of The Editorial Eye.]
A few years ago, humorist Dave Barry, writing as “Mister Language Person,” offered “Three Rules For When To Use Apostrophe’s,” including this one:
TO INDICATE CONTRACTIONS. Example: “This childbirth really hurt’s!”
We use contractions all the time and quite naturally when we speak, usually with common sequences of words, such as negations (don’t, won’t, isn’t) and with pronouns and auxiliary verbs (I’m, you’re, they’ve). The phenomenon of squashing two words together has been the topic of endless linguistic dissertations—and errors. The pandemic misspelling of it’s for its is one of the great mysteries of grammar, given that there’s no ambiguity at all about which should be which.
Aside from avoiding errors like that, how should we handle contractions when we write?
Should we use them or not?
According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, the use of contractions in writing fell from favor in the 18th century, when writers Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift (and a few others) satirized the practice of using contractions, along with abbreviated or clipped forms of longer words, in conversation. “Usage books took up the cudgels from the satirists,” and it took more than two centuries for contractions in written English to make a comeback. “In 1901 a correspondent of The Ladies Home Journal was still wondering if can’t, couldn’t, and won’t were permissible.”
There’s no doubt that contractions are back, although there is some disagreement about the proper time and place to use them, with some saying that we should use them freely, and others arguing for strict limits.
One of the authorities leading the charge for contractions is Rudolf Flesch, who, in his 1966 book The ABC of Style, dispensed this advice:
It’s a good style rule to use as many apostrophes as possible. This is not because apostrophes are specially pretty (they’re not) but because they’re an outward sign that you’re using many contractions like it’s, I’ve, he’s, we’re, etc. And the more contractions you use, the more your writing will resemble idiomatic, spoken English. In fact, the spelling out of usually contracted words is sometimes downright unidiomatic and wrong.
William Zinsser, the much admired author of On Writing Well, agrees, saying that we need to be guided by what sounds right:
Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like “I’ll” and “won’t” and “can’t” when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing. “I’ll be glad to see them if they don’t get mad” is less stiff than “I will be glad to see them if they do not get mad.” (Read that aloud and hear how stilted it sounds.) There’s no rule against such informality—trust your ear and your instincts.
Bill Walsh, copy chief for the national desk at the Washington Post, puts it this way: “Unless you’re writing an ultraformal academic paper…don’t strain to avoid contractions.” And one Internet commentator recently pointed out that nonhuman characters in science fiction movies, android or alien, seldom use contractions. In other words, we should use contractions when we write because we use them when we talk. It makes our writing sound more relaxed and natural, more human.
However, some authorities advise against the use of contractions for this very reason. For example, Sheridan Baker stated in the Longman Practical Stylist that writers should avoid them “or your prose will seem too chummy,” although he does allow for their occasional use for “colloquial emphasis.”
The Associated Press Stylebook observes that contractions reflect informal speech and writing and advises against “excessive use of contractions.” (AP doesn’t offer any insight on how much is excessive, however.) The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is even firmer, stating, “In straightforward news copy, spell out expressions like is not, has not, have not, do not, are not, will not, etc.” The Times does allow contractions in direct quotations, texts and transcripts, headlines or subheadings, and in “light or humorous copy.”
Other style guides seem to be agnostic on the issue. Neither the Chicago Manual of Style nor the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers seems to take a position, although each offers advice on contraction usage.
A question of tone
You can see that, for some, it boils down to a question of a formal versus an informal tone. Many style guides, both printed and online, say that contractions are less formal than using the words individually and that you must make the choice based on your audience and the goals of the piece you’re writing. For example, one business writing manual suggests using contractions when you want to “soften a letter’s formality.”
However, some authorities argue for using contractions in contexts you would expect to be rigidly formal, including legal writing and financial writing. Bryan A. Garner, author of the Elements of Legal Style and A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, says there’s no reason to avoid contractions in formal legal documents.
Legal writers have a morbid fear of contractions. Maybe that’s because contractions counteract stuffiness—and some legal writers seem devoted to sounding stuffy. That’s a major psychological cause of poor writing.
In fact, the more conversational your style is, the more readable it becomes. This doesn’t mean that you should become loose and slangy in your writing—just that you should try to be relaxed and natural. And contractions contribute a lot to that effect.
One person’s formality is another’s stuffiness, it seems.
Put the reader first
Many argue that contractions make a document more usable because they’re easier to read and often less prone to misreading. Garner agrees with this, and Plain Language, an online writing guide published by the Bureau of Land Management of the US Department of the Interior, also states that contractions help the reader:
Readers are used to hearing words in the contracted form; in fact, when readers see would not, they’re likely to turn it into wouldn’t.
In some cases, you may decide whether or not to use contractions on the basis of what you want to emphasize rather than on the tone. Spelling it out—for example, saying must not or do not instead of mustn’t or don’t—is usually more emphatic than the contracted form. For a point that you don’t want the reader to miss, you might choose to use both words rather than the contraction.
On the other hand, Plain Language maintains that using both words makes the copy more likely to be misread:
Another benefit [to using contractions] is that many readers miss the second word and take the exact opposite meaning. They read “would not” as “would.” That doesn’t happen when the word is “wouldn’t.”
Sadly, this leaves us agonizing over whether to spell something out—to emphasize it—or to contract it—to ensure that it isn’t misread.
Use your ear— and these guidelines
Zinsser says, “Trust your ear and your instincts.” If you’d use a contraction when speaking, you can use it when writing. If you find yourself questioning it, check the dictionary. If you can’t find it, leave it out. Flesch also warns that “Contractions can look phony and artificial when you use them for words you would not contract in saying the particular sentence out loud” (We shan’t attend).
Here are a few more guidelines about using contractions:
Consider your audience. We do this before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but it also helps us choose when and how to use contractions. For example, if your audience includes a significant number of ESL (English as a second language) readers, consider avoiding contractions. If you’re writing something that will be translated, common contractions shouldn’t cause any problems, but stay away from unusual ones like wouldn’t’ve.
Beware of ambiguous contractions. Some contractions can stand for different things. For example, it’s can be either it has or it is, and we’d could be either we had or we would. Context will usually make the meaning clear; few people would misread “She’d gone to the park” as “She would gone to the park.” But in some cases, or for some readers (remember the ESL audience), the context might not be enough.
Don’t string contractions together. Although we do use compound contractions (such as couldn’t’ve for could not have or I’d’ve for I would have) when we speak, nobody seems to thinks it wise to use them in writing, even in the most informal contexts. For some reason, we can read simple contractions with no difficulty, but our eyes tend to stumble over things like couldn’t’ve.
Don’t invent cryptic contractions. Thanks to e-mail and instant messaging, people have taken to contracting—maybe a better term is condensing—individual words by omitting several letters and inserting an apostrophe in their place. This leads to things like Photoshop being rendered as P’shop, which can confuse the uninitiated. Birthday becomes b’day, and I tend to read that with Crocodile Dundee accent, kind of like “G’day!” But such contractions are de rigueur online, and they’re efficient—unless your reader can’t decode them.
Obviously, if you’re bound by a style guide that frowns on contractions, you have to adhere to it. Otherwise (leaving aside the undefined differences between formal and informal writing), there doesn’t seem to be a reason to avoid them. Maybe we should all just breathe deeply and relax. ◆
This article was originally printed in The Editorial Eye, 66 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314-5507, (703) 683-0683.
Copyright © 2005 Roy Jacobsen. All rights reserved. You can print ONE copy of this article for personal use. Other than that, you can’t reproduce this article by any means without written permission from the author.