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Contractions – To Use or Not to Use
Which is better?
I’ve been thinking about what you’ve been telling me. You’ll know who’s behind it all. You ain’t e’er seen what he’d’ve seen.
I have been thinking about what you have been telling me. You will know who is behind it all. You have not seen what he would have seen.
Were you able to follow the first example? Too many contractions? Or were the contractions too convoluted?
Now you’re wondering what a contraction is. Well, simply put, it’s two words contracted together, some letters removed and replaced with an apostrophe. Like you’re instead of you are.
Is it acceptable to use contractions in writing? Well, it really depends. Formal writing generally avoids using any contractions. Why? Simply put contractions are not very formal. Yes, we use contractions in everyday speech, but formal writing like business letters and theses, are not everyday speech.
Also, since contractions are most commonly used in speech, it works well in dialogue, but perhaps not so well in narrative passages. However, even that distinction has restrictions. Contractions are more commonly found in contemporary form of speech. If you’re writing dialogue for people in the sixteenth century, you should avoid using contractions. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth I saying something like this:
God forgive you, but I can’t ever.
I know I’ve the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I’ve the heart and stomach of a king and of a king of England too.
Dialogue must always remain true to the era in which it applies.
Really old English had its own class of contracted verbs, way back more than a thousand years. But more formal speech didn’t use contractions until early in the seventeenth century. Contractions were found in writing by the middle of the seventeenth century. There were contractions before the 1600s, but these existed without the use of the apostrophe (not that one would hear the apostrophe in the spoken form of a contraction). Why is that? Because the apostrophe was still relatively new to the English language.
And, even when making the educated choice to use contractions in the written form, the writer should take care. Some contractions are just plain awkward. Like Michael’d or Anne’d instead of Michael would or Anne would. Add contractions to a vernacular dialogue and you could potentially end up with something impossibly complicated to follow, like this passage from Marian Keith’s early twentieth-century novel, The Silver Maple:
“Ye’re richt, Donald,” said Store Thompson, at length, “what wi’ the whusky an’ the wild goin’s on, this place is jist in a bad state. But it’s thae Eerish. Man,” he continued emphatically, “thae Eerish, whether Catholic or Protestant, are jist a menace to the country, aye, jist yon, jist a menace, like!”
Apparently, some languages make it essential to use contractions. That’s not the case in English. So, of course, you don’t have to use contractions. However, remember that, without some contractions, your passage of dialogue might come across as being too formal.
There are other complications with contractions. Some create confusion in their homophonic association with another word. Like you’re and your. This inevitably leads to considerable misuse and misspelled words.
There are also contractions that are really abbreviations, like:
Ltd. for Limited (as in a company)
int’l for international
However, these contractions (abbreviations) are not pronounceable.
And there are contraction possibilities that shouldn’t even be considered. For example:
It is what it’s.
It’s what it is
It’s what it’s.
This type of sentence only works without the contractions:
It is what it is.
So, you might wonder, what is the point of using contractions. Well, we humans are always looking for a quicker, less formal way of doing things. Using contractions in speech allows us to say what we want to say much faster. And, it’s less formal. When the need arises, use contractions. Carefully and without overusing them.
Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Emily-Jane Hills Orford