Failing to use contractions even when they would best serve the sentence is a writing flaw fueled by a common myth. Some writers believe they should use whole words in professional or “formal” communications – do not, cannot, I will, we have, it is, etc. – instead of don’t, can’t, I’ll, we’ve, it’s.
That idea probably originated in the spurious notion that “formal” writing, with its stiff, unconversational style, somehow is more suited to professional communication than “informal” writing. Some computer grammar checkers can shoulder the blame, too. But those grammar checkers are notorious for mistakes and silly suggestions.
Fact is, both contractions and whole words are perfectly fine. Whether we choose one over the other depends upon the sentence – its rhythms, phrasing, length, emphasis and pace. We should prefer whatever sounds better, whatever is seamless, natural, fast. In short, there’s nothing particularly “colloquial” about contractions – good writers use them in every kind of writing.
How absurd is avoiding contractions? In the last sentence of the preceding paragraph, should I have written: “In short, there is nothing particularly ‘colloquial’ about contractions”? Why? Reading the sentence aloud shows that it moves faster and smoother with the contraction there’s. A box on the front of The Wall Street Journal bears this headline: “What’s News.” Should that be changed to “What Is News”? Obviously not. If I’m writing to Aunt Jane, I might say: “We’re leaving Tuesday, but don’t worry, we’ll see you before we go.” If that sentence appeared in a “formal” communication, should it be “We are leaving Tuesday, but do not worry, we will see you before we go”?
The sentences below are from excellent writers who understand the use and benefits of contractions. Read both versions aloud and see how contractions smooth sentence flow and preserve speed, focus and grace:
“Let’s not rush to judgment before we’re sure there’s a problem.” This sentence would be slow and cumbersome if it were rendered: “Let us not rush to judgment before we are sure there is a problem.”
“It’s to the place now where it’s more fun to stay home, but don’t admit it.” Awkward: “It is to the place now where it is more fun to stay home, but do not admit it.”
“It couldn’t be, could it, that there’s a reason for the suspicious noise he’s making?” Awkward:“It could not be, could it, that there is a reason for the suspicious noise he is making?”
“There’s a lot more tension in the office than there was before – I can’t recall anything like it.” Awkward: “There is a lot more tension in the office than there was before – I cannot recall anything like it.”
Below, on the other hand, are passages from writers who apparently fear contractions. Again, read the two versions aloud and hear the improvement in the second version:
“Although it is hard to predict how this controversy will end, there is clearly a shift in opinion.” Wouldn’t it be better: “Although it’s hard to predict how this controversy will end, there’s clearly a shift in opinion.”
“There is nothing wrong with getting rich as long as it is done fairly.” Better: “There’s nothing wrong with getting rich as long as it’s done fairly.”
“It is a legend with a lesson that we will do well to remember.” Better: “It’s a legend with a lesson that we’ll do well to remember.”
Read the following passage aloud, and see if you can discover two places where contractions would smooth and speed the flow:
“Somewhere, perhaps in a small town beneath a basket hung over a driveway that is illuminated only by light spilling from a nearby kitchen window, there is the 11 p.m. slap-slap-slap-swish of a boy practicing a jump shot that someday will have people saying he is like Michael – maybe even a bit better.”
Better: “… beneath a basket hung over a driveway that’s illuminated only by light spilling from a nearby kitchen window, there’s the 11 p.m. slap-slap-slap-swish of a boy practicing a jump shot … .”
If contractions are so great, should we use them to the exclusion of whole words? Absolutely not. We need both. Whole words sometimes are better in certain cases because they are more emphatic or stately: “I cannot tolerate that; this will not stand.” Notice the final sentence in the “Michael” passage above: a jump shot that someday will have people saying he is like Michael. The whole words “he is” slow the sentence a bit and make it more emphatic than would the contraction “he’s.” Try both aloud to hear what I mean.
It’s probably best to avoid ambiguous contractions such as he’d, we’d, I’d, etc., because they mean not only he would, we would, I would, but also he had, we had, I had. (However, it’s is acceptable for both it is and it has: “It’s good to see you; it’s been a long time.”) And it’s best to stick to accepted contractions, avoiding such concoctions as could’ve, should’ve, would’ve.
Otherwise, contract away. Your style will be smoother, faster, and warmer for it.
Paula Larocque is a consultant for The Dallas Morning News, where she was a writing coach for 20 years. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.