Don’t Use Contractions?

Are contractions sloppy? That question came to me today when a writing class participant told me she would never use a contraction. And here’s the reason she wouldn’t: A teacher had drilled into her head that their use is wrong. In fact, the participant called contractions "sloppy," and a classmate agreed.

I worry about the suggestion that contractions are sloppy. That’s because I rarely write a paragraph without one. Since I began this blog post, I have already used four contractions: here’s, it’s, wouldn’t, and that’s.

I use contractions to communicate a flowing, easy style. As a writer, I want you, the reader, to feel that I am talking with you and that the words come easily. I do not want to communicate formally with you. (In that sentence I used do not rather than don’t for emphasis.)

I decided to consult my reference books for comments on contractions. In most of them, I found support for using contractions to communicate a friendly tone. For example:

  • The Gregg Reference Manual: "Contractions of verb phrases are commonly used in business communications where the writer is striving for an easy, colloquial tone. In formal writing, contractions are not used (except for o’clock….)"
  • Write Right: A Desktop Digest of Punctuation, Grammar, and Style: "Contractions create a friendly, informal tone that may not be suitable in formal writing."
  • The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t comment on the appropriateness of contractions, but it gives many examples of them. It says, for example, that "Don’t you want more?" sounds more natural than "Do you not want more?"
  • The Associated Press Stylebook: "Contractions reflect informal speech and writing. . . . Avoid excessive use of contractions."

From two books, I learned that contractions challenge people who read English as a foreign language:

  • Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications: "Avoid contractions. As basic as contractions are to the native reader, they add unnecessary complexity for the non-native reader. For example, contractions that end in ‘s can be mistaken for possessive nouns, and the ‘s can be read as either has or is."
  • The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, and Internet Pages for a Global Audience: "Avoid abbreviations, contractions, and acronyms" and "Contractions have no place in formal writing."

I live as a writer and writing teacher, and my guiding principle is "Write for the reader."  Because many visitors to this blog read English as a foreign language (EFL), I have decided to use fewer contractions–starting right now. I will continue to communicate with a warm, friendly tone, but I am sure I can find a way to do that without using so many contractions.

Although I had "unchecked" the option of checking for contractions in my Microsoft software, I just rechecked it to help me use fewer contractions. Now my grammar and spelling checker will flag contractions for me. After all, I do not want to seem, as the people in class today suggested, "sloppy." And I want my readers from around the globe to have an easier time understanding what I write.

What do you think about contractions in business writing? Are they friendly, informal, convenient, or just plain sloppy?

Lynn

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Other search spellings; cotnaractions, conractions, buisness, wiritng

27 COMMENTS

  1. Having to write many 500 and 1000 word papers for disciplinary actions. I must say the use of contractions can be detrimental to your goal.
    However you mentioned something in your post, that I hear very often. “Write for the reader”. This statement is very benign at first, but when you think about it’s context it becomes more of problem. If I continue to write a more conversational tone and interject more “slang” type language in my writing and speech. I then begin to manage down my communication skills versus managing up. If we continue to manage up with our language, then overall our communication style will increase and have more of even flow.
    Besides, I like the mental challenge of trying craft that sentence with “will not, shall not”.

  2. Matthew, thanks for your comment. Please see my post from today, in which I responded to one of your ideas.

    I enjoyed your point about the 500- and 1000-word punishments. No wonder people write long pieces!

    Lynn

  3. Contractions are much more stylish than normal sentences without them. To me, it’s about being more stylish. I’m a non-native speaker and a reader but I don’t find it difficult at all.

  4. I’m very confused with the use of There’s….for example “There’s a lot of people”. “There’s people…” I need clarification as to when this contraction is appropriate. Do you base it on the noun or the object of the preposition, as in the first example?

  5. Mara, Although your comment is several months old, I just came across it now.

    The confusion about “there is” vs. “there are” arises because “there” is not the subject of the sentence; the noun or pronoun that immediately follows the verb is. Thus, you would say “There are a lot of people,” but “there is my friend.” In inverted order, you might say “A lot of people are there,” or “My friend is there.” The same rule applies to the wor “here”: “Here is my friend;” “here are my friends.”

    I hope this helps.

  6. I’m a fanfiction writer and I was recently told that it was wrong to use contractions in narrative (where a character is specifically not speaking in dialogue) when I read over a piece for someone and commented that the lack of contractions made the sentences sound a bit too long and unnatural. Since then, I’ve been trying to apply this to my own work, and I’m becoming increasingly unhappy because my writing now sounds abnormally stunted. It almost sounds like I’ve learned the language out of a book, with all its rules, like a foreign language which is not the case. I’m fine with not using contractions if the sentence still flows naturally off the tongue and the page, but is it okay to use them if the sentence looks simply wrong?

  7. Hi, Auric. Contractions are slightly informal. Use them if you want to communicate informally or with a breezy tone.

    I use them frequently. However, I am careful to avoid using them constantly. When my grammar and spellling checker flags one, I ask myself whether it would sound fine spelled out. If the spelled out version sounds good, I avoid the contraction.

    If a spelled out version sounds too formal or awkward, don’t use it.

    Good luck!
    Lynn

  8. I greatly enjoy the use of contractions and tend to incorporate them into emails and other informal writing. However, I avoid them in research papers and formal reports, and with one exception, I don’t use contractions when I write books.

    The exception? Sometimes, I want to invite readers to join me in continuing to a new topic of discussion, and when that is the case, the word “let’s” is far more fluid and appropriate than writing “let us.”

  9. Thank you so much for the information. I am a Brazilian English teacher and I was just correcting an essay in which the student DID NOT use contractions at all because her previous teacher told her not to. But it is such an informal topic that I’ll recommend her to reconsider using contractions again.

  10. Hi Lynn,

    In my opinion, it really isn’t natural for someone to say “Do not you want more?” I think it is “Do you not want more” if not in the form of a contraction. Honestly, I have never heard of “Do not you” and I am just wondering why the Chicago Manual of Style used it as an example.

  11. Hello, Fel. Thank you for your interesting comment.

    I checked my 16th edition of “Chicago,” which was published in 2010. I don’t know whether the section in question was updated in the 16th edition. However, the section suggests that I may have typed the example incorrectly. I believe “Chicago” DID say “Do you not want more?”

    Believing the mistake was mine, I will change the example above so it makes more sense.

    Thank you!

    Lynn

  12. I am a native English speaker who creates training materials in English for an international company in a team who all speak English as a 2nd language. I also do a lot of voice over for the eLearning modules we create. Recently it was brought to my attention that I use a lot of contractions in my written work which caused me to reflect about why. I too find that it creates a friendlier nicer flow. I also realized that I read everything as if I would need to record it as a voice over. For voice over I find contractions imperative. There is no way I will say outloud, “Now let us take a look at what we have been discussing”. People don’t talk like that. But I have tried to tone down my use of contractions in the unspoken training texts. But I have to say, my preference remains with contractions even there. It just flows better, sounds better, sounds more natural.

  13. Hello, Aimee. You and I agree, and I believe my way of writing is similar to yours. I read my writing “aloud” in my mind to be sure it flows.

    I run a grammar and spelling check and pay attention to the contractions that have been flagged. When the spelled out version sounds okay, I eliminate the contraction.

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

    Lynn

  14. I found this post to be refreshingly straightforward and dead-on. Deciding whether to use or not to use contractions in writing is quite controversial. I have encountered numerous writers who are vehemently against including contractions in any composition, and I have personally struggled with this dilemma in my own writing. I am disappointed to see contractions get such a bad rap, when they can truly enhance one’s writing. I, too, address this issue in my grammar blog, White Wordsmith at http://whitewordsmith.com. I think we have a similar view on this punctuation problem.

  15. Interesting post, thanks! It’s flagged up the fact that discussing contractions with my language students is really worth doing — it’s clearly not something with hard and fast rules, and it would be good for them to hear different points of view.

    All the best,
    Monica

  16. I work in Softwares… My clients are accustomed to get mails from me at weird times. I dress sloppily. Yet, my employer(s) want me to drop contractions. I use them in my formal communication, but when its on behalf of my employers, I just please them.

    In my case, the question boils down to whether I want to create friendly environment or a pompous official relationship with my client.

  17. You are (You’re) correct that contractions create a different feeling in a message or document. It sounds as though your employers want you to come across professionally. That goal can still be achieved with a moderate use of contractions.

    Lynn

  18. Another subject, who began the practice of using “issues” as opposed to “problems” is this 1984 where reducing the dictionary to only 10 pages is the goal??? I think it is a method of eliminating the dreaded word “problem” from our vocabulary, what doth you think??

  19. Hi, David. I think people try hard to remain positive or at least neutral. The word “problem” always has a negative connotation, and an issue is typically negative too.

    Sometimes it makes sense to be clear about problem areas and issues. Yet at other times calling them “opportunities” is more productive.

    I remember teaching a David Erdman a long time ago at Suffern High School. Could you be that person?

    Lynn

  20. Hi Lynn,

    Another questi on, is it appropriate to use the word “wooden” to describe a table, for instance, or is “wood” more applicable. Thanks

    David Erdman

    PS: Where is Suffern high school??

  21. Hello, David. If you are in an industry that sells wood products, I would follow the industry standard.

    I checked a few style guides, and not one discussed wood-wooden.

    I did learn something new from my dictionary. The first definition (archaic) of “wood” is “violently mad.”

    Suffern is in Rockland County, New York.

    Lynn

  22. My 12th grade English teacher not to use contractions in serious writing. My college rhetoric instructor told me not to use contractions in class papers. My business communications told me not to use contractions and to use abbreviations rarely. For example, on your business card, spell out the word “suite”. I was told to spell out things like “sq ft”, even though the meaning is obvious. I finished college in 1993. Before craigslist.

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