Ask an editor: Contractions in a novel manuscript

Susan writes:

I believe if you use contractions in a manuscript, consistency demands using them in both dialog and narrative. A fellow writer was told by an editor to use contractions in dialog but not narrative. I’ve scoured CMS but can find no direction. Can you offer some wisdom?

Susan’s question triggered a question of my own. Not for Susan, but for her friend’s editor: Why?

Why allow contractions in dialog, but forbid them in narrative?

As I’ve written elsewhere, contractions have a long and noble history, and I have no objection to seeing them used everywhere, including formal business and legal documents. Why not in novels, in both dialog and narrative?

William Zinsser likes contractions. “Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality,” he writes in On Writing Well, “if you use contractions like ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.”

Patricia T. O’Conner agrees. In Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, she asks “Isn’t it time we admitted that the contraction has earned its place in the sun? It has all the qualities we admire in language: it’s handy, succinct, and economical, and everybody knows what it means.”

Not content to leave it at that, I polled a random sampling of fiction. Dean Koontz uses contractions. Ray Bradbury uses contractions. Jeffrey Overstreet, contractions. W. Dale Cramer, contractions.

Susan, I can think of no reason to allow contractions in dialog, but forbid them in narrative. Naturally, if you’re dealing with the set style of a particular publishing house, you have to adhere to that style.

But if I were in that situation, I would certainly ask my editor that question: “Why?”

This entry was posted in Ask an editor, Grammar and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ask an editor: Contractions in a novel manuscript

  1. Susan says:

    Thank you. I feel vindicated. I, too, wondered what that editor’s rationale was.

    BTW, shouldn’t the first “it’s” in the O’Conner quote be sans apostrophe, since it’s a possessive?:

    “Patricia T. O’Conner agrees. In Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, she asks ‘Isn’t it time we admitted that the contraction has earned it’s place in the sun? It has all the qualities we admire in language: it’s handy, succinct, and economical, and everybody knows what it means.’”

    • Roy Jacobsen says:


      You are welcome.

      And thank you for pointing out my typo. You are correct that it should be its and not it’s, and I have corrected the post. Even though I know better, that particular error seems to plague me more than any other.

  2. Erica says:

    I was worried because I just read a blog by an author I enjoy who says you can only use contractions in dialog and direct thoughts, unless writing in first person (where the whole story is in deep thought). He says deep third doesn’t count, because it’s “fake” internal dialog, not genuine.

    I’m using a lot of deep third in my novel, and to me, not using contractions in my narrative would feel as strange and out of character as using a simile like “his heart revved like a jet engine” in a fictional setting that hasn’t invented jet engines yet.

    I’ve read plenty of writer and editor blogs that say it is now acceptable to use contractions in business and technical correspondence/articles, so it seemed really strange to me that there would still be a “rule” about using them in fictional narrative, which is generally ahead of the curvewhen it comes to changing the old rules.

  3. jldob says:

    It’s curious. I was just searching this because I’d recently read a few books that had been shying away from contraction in both dialogue and narrative. I felt -especially with dialogue- that it created a rather stiff impression of that character and I would’ve been comfortable if that were the only character doing this. Unfortunately all of them were doing this. And just when I was sure they were doing this on purpose there would be two instances where contractions would show up. I believe those were in dialogue. That just further confused me. But if they were being edited out that would make sense- someone just missed those.

    I was searching because I wondered if someone had decided some screwy rule that contractions are evil. I’d once heard someone who reads historical and romantic historical novels say that that seems to be the case in those novels to set the pace of the era (did they not use contractions in old Britain. For all I know they don’t today.)

    It really becomes difficult for the new writer to learn the craft when the ‘masters’ are throwing their personal rules out there as though they are the law.

    Either way as a reader it really put me off to see so many attempts to kill contractions in both the dialogue and the narrative. It does not make sense. I do not think people talk like that. And, I do not know how long I could take that. It is not very helpful. Tell me, does it not sicken you and sadden you to see the death of the contraction?

    J.L. Dobias

  4. Randall Andrews says:

    What your authors fail to realize is that only the author reads it as clunky. Truth is, readers don’t notice it at all. The biggest reason for separating the two is to give the dialogue a richer, more immediate feel to it. If you choose to use contractions in narrative that’s fine, but there is a reason for it.

  5. wagnerel says:

    I think the “rule” about contractions must come from this advice list,

    which originated in the 80s and circulates on sites intended for writers. Some of the tips are sound enough, but some seem really tone deaf (they ignore that writers have this thing called voice, which will utilize judicious use of things like contractions, profanity, colloquialisms, fragments and so on). Or perhaps these rules were not intended for fiction writers?

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