Communication, Editing, Grammar, Writing

When Is it Okay to Use Contractions?

A contraction is a shortened version of two or more words that have been joined together to form one word. Certain letters–usually vowels–are dropped and an apostrophe is put in their place.

Here is a list of commonly used contractions, along with the full form for each one:

Full formContraction
is notisn’t
did notdidn’t
does notdoesn’t
could not, should not, would notcouldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t
they arethey’re
let uslet’s
I will, you will he will, she will, we will,
they will
I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, we’ll, they’ll
who iswho’s
here ishere’s
everybody is, somebody iseverybody’s, somebody’s
I have, you have, we have, they haveI’ve, you’ve, we’ve they’ve
he has, she hashe’s, she’s
has not, had nothasn’t, hadn’t
what iswhat’s
who wouldwho’d

Are contractions grammatically correct?

Most contractions are grammatically correct. Technically, there is nothing wrong with using “didn’t” instead of “did not” or “here’s” instead of “here is”. If you listen carefully, you will often hear contractions in spoken English. Indeed, when a fictional character doesn’t use contractions (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Grover from Sesame Street are two notable examples), their speech sounds unnatural or funny.

If you are writing a casual or “business casual” email, text, or social media post, go ahead and use a contraction if it works for you. If you regularly read this blog–which is written in a “business casual” tone–you’ll see contractions here and there.

What about formal writing?

Although it is okay to use contractions in many contexts, it is best to avoid them if you are writing formal business emails/letters, academic papers, or any type of legal document. Again, this isn’t because contractions are wrong. Rather, it is because contractions will make your writing sound too casual.

Let’s look at an example. Here are some sentences from a business email:

I’ve almost completed the PowerPoint presentation. I’ll send it to you later today. Please let me know if there’s anything else I should add.

The above sentences are perfectly okay for a “business casual” email. However, let’s imagine that the author is writing to someone whose position warrants a more formal tone, such as a professor or a supervisor at work. The author can achieve this simply by taking out the contractions and writing the words in their full form.

I have almost completed the PowerPoint presentation. I will send it to you later today. Please let me know if there is anything else I should add.

These sentences read more slowly and the tone is more serious. It gives the impression that the author is paying close attention to the details of their work. In other words, the sentences without the contractions sound more professional.

If you want to emphasize a certain point…

You might also choose to use the full form instead of a contraction if you want to emphasize a certain point within your text. Consider the following sentences:

I’ll be there soon.

I will be there soon.

The “will” in the second sentence makes it sound stronger. It gives the reader a stronger sense that yes, this person really will be there soon.

Here are two more sentences where you can see a similar effect:

Joe didn’t steal the money.

Joe did not steal the money.

Can you notice the difference?

A few quirks to consider…

The English language is quirky, and contractions are no exception. Therefore, beware of the following quirks:

  • Let us/let’s: Unless you are writing something that is very formal, you should use the contraction instead of the full form. “Let us” simply is not used much in 21st century English.
  • Cannot/can’t: Although most contractions are formed from two or more words, “cannot” is just one word. You don’t put a space between the two n’s.
  • Of the clock/o’clock: Unless you are writing something really unusual, you always use “o’clock”. The full form, “of the clock”, dates back to an era when clocks were not common and is almost never used today. Even “o’clock” doesn’t appear as often as it once did. For business emails in particular, it’s better to give the time using numbers, plus AM or PM and the time zone (if appropriate).
  • Ain’t and y’all: Although most contractions are grammatically correct, these two are not. They should only be used in the most casual contexts, or if you are writing dialogue for a work of fiction and your characters talk this way.
  • Name’ll: In spoken English, it isn’t unusual to hear sentences such as “John’ll be here soon” or “Kathy’ll pick up the kids at school”. However, in written English, tacking an apostrophe plus two Ls onto someone’s name just doesn’t look right.
  • There’re: Although “there’s” is a proper contraction for “there is”, “there’re” is not used in place of “there are”. Since “there’re” and “there are” have the same number of syllables, the contraction doesn’t shorten the original full form. Another common mistake is when writers use “there’s” to refer to more than one object. “I think there’s five bottles of wine in the kitchen” is not grammatically correct; only the full form (“there are”) is right.

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