The way you use contractions (e.g. “Do not” vs “Don’t“) tells your reader a lot about you. If you are not clear on how to use them,
- You may convey that you haven’t done a lot of writing in your life
- Your language may sound unnatural
- Your sentences may lose some of their power
- You may even waste a job opportunity.
What Are Contractions?
Contractions are a way of using an apostrophe to splice two words into one, eliminating a syllable. For example :
Do not -> Don’t
Have not -> Haven’t
We are -> We’re
Three Simple Rules of Using Contractions
Rule 1. Rarely use contractions in formal writing.
If you’re writing an email to your new classmate, you may write:
“Hey, Chuck. We’re going out tonight. Don’t be shy and join. I should’ve called you yesterday, but couldn’t.”
This sentence contains four contractions. And it’s fine because Chuck is your classmate. He won’t be offended at the use of a contraction or two in every sentence.
In fact, if you didn’t use contractions, you might have sounded too formal, maybe a little weird to Chuck.
If you’re writing a cover letter to include in your resume, then it’s a different story:
“I am confident in my abilities and do not like to slack off. I should have emailed you first. I could not imagine a better job than the one I am applying for.”
These sentences may not be masterpieces of cover letter writing, but they illustrate several cases in which contractions could be used but were not.
You may have noticed that I said, “rarely” use contractions in formal communication. That’s because if you never use them, you may sometimes come across as a bit stiff, maybe a little too formal.
In emails and cover letters, it’s okay to use a contraction once in five to seven sentences. This is acceptable and strikes a nice balance.
What about college-level essay writing?
It’s best not to use contractions in academic writing. Professors usually expect a very formal style.
That said, if you have a good relationship with a professor, perhaps you can instill a little style into your writing by using a contraction here and there.
But generally, don’t use contractions in academic essays and research papers.
Rule 2. Listen to the music of your sentences.
Sometimes using a contraction just sounds better than not using one:
“I do not know a better way to say this.”
“I don’t know a better way to say this.”
Which version sounds a little better? The second version is just more melodic.
“I have not done any work yet.”
“I haven’t done any work yet.”
Again – which sentence sounds better to you? The second one in each example is a better choice because it’s easier to pronounce.
So, it’s better received, especially in speech. But the same is true in writing.
Using contractions in fiction and creative non-fiction
If you are writing a work of fiction, listening to the music of your sentences will easily reveal to you whether you should use a contraction or not.
Creative writing is a world of its own where the rules of grammar or formality don’t always apply. At least, they are not as sacred as they are in formal writing.
Your novel or short story still needs a solid foundation of English grammar. But once you have learned the rules and used them, you can start bending and breaking them every now and then.
For example, one of your characters may be a local troublemaker. A person who is used to breaking rules in life is expected to break the rules of language, as well. Theirs may be hoarse and ungrammatical.
And your reader will expect such a character to use contractions and even their ungrammatical or colloquial versions, such as the word “ain’t.”
When it comes to creative non-fiction, such as a memoir, you can definitely use contractions to your heart’s desire. How often you use them will simply reflect your personality or style.
Rule 3. Do not use contractions when trying to emphasize a point.
This rule is applicable in all kinds of writing except very formal. The nature of using a stress on certain verbs implies less formal communication.
You need some rapport in order to emphasize something by stressing or highlighting a verb. Here’s an example:
“No, you do not want to be late again!”
Here, we’re emphasizing the word “not.” Therefore, we should write this word in full. You can also use the bold type or underline the word to place an emphasis on it. This is acceptable in less formal or informal writing.
I have also seen this and done it myself in academic writing.
Here are more examples:
“I have not been unfair!”
Again, we’re emphasizing the word “not” and shouldn’t use a contraction.
“He is coming tomorrow.” (Instead of “He’s coming tomorrow.”)
We’re emphasizing that he is, in fact, showing up as opposed to not showing up.
If you make these simple rules your own, you’ll enjoy:
- Better grades
- More respect from professors who are tired of these mistakes
- A better job, if you’re prudent when writing your cover letter
Bonus Rule. Do not finish your sentences with contractions.
One of my readers, Ian, reminded me to include this rule. Good thing he did.
Here are examples of what not to do in a sentence:
- “It is one of the most important rules for using contractions we’ve.”
- “You might not think you are getting it wrong but you’re.”
- “If it sounds wrong it’s.”
Here are the corrected versions:
- “It is one of the most important rules for using contractions we have.”
- “You might not think you are getting it wrong, but you are.”
- “If it sounds wrong, it is.”
Contraction Mistakes to Avoid like the Plague
1. Writing “should of” instead of “should’ve”
This error is irritating to anyone who knows the correct spelling.
“Should’ve” is a contraction for “should have.” It has nothing to do with the preposition “of.”
It’s easy to avoid this mistake. If it sounds like “should of,” just write “should’ve” – plain and simple.
2. Writing “your” instead of “you’re” and vice versa
If you mean “you are,” then write “you’re.”
“You’re an amazing friend!”
This means that you are an amazing friend.
If you mean “yours” as in “it belongs to you,” then use “your.”
“Your car is not parked well.”
This sentence means that you should probably repark the car that belongs to you.
3. Writing “their” instead of “they’re” and vice versa
Whether you’re in the academic or professional world, you really want to avoid this one. This error betrays sloppiness in language, which may translate into sloppiness in work in the mind of your boss or professor.
Just like in the previous mistake, “their” connotes possession:
“This is their business.”
This means that they own the business.
“They’re” is a contraction for “they are.”
“They’re in a rush.”
This means that they are in a hurry.
4. Writing “whose” instead of “who’s” and vice versa
If you mean “who is,” then write “who’s.”
“Who’s on first?”
This is a line from a famous comedy sketch by Abbott & Costello. It means “who is on the first base?”
If you want to know to whom something belongs, use “whose.”
“Whose car is that?”
This person wants to know who is the person to whom the car that probably blocks the driveway belongs.
A list of common contractions
- I would like -> I’d like
- I should have -> I should’ve
- I cannot -> I can’t
- I do not -> I don’t
- He will -> He’ll
- She has known -> She’s known
- She is known -> She’s known
- Who is there? -> Who’s there?
- Here is the report -> Here’s the report
- I have not -> I haven’t
- I had not -> I hadn’t
- I should not -> I shouldn’t
- I will not -> I won’t
- She must have forgotten -> She must’ve forgotten
- He is not -> He isn’t
- I would not -> I wouldn’t
- She was not -> She wasn’t
- She did not -> She didn’t
Here’s a video with contraction flash cards. Just watch and memorize visually:
Hope this was helpful!