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How compelled should I feel to use non-contracted forms (do not rather than don't and so on) when writing in a rather formal text, say an academic paper? In one case I am afraid to seem too stilted, in the other, too casual. Are there good guidelines?

And are there differences in this regard between British and American English?

(In this previous question there was not much more than "Contractions are more frequent in informal than formal contexts".)

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Follow the preference of your thesis supervisor, professor, or equivalent. –  jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 23:40
    
@jgbelacqua: Are you aware that you are telling me, more or less: “Why are you asking this here? Ask someone else”? What makes you think I have a supervisor, rather than being one, for instance? Or that I work with English-speaking people? –  DaG Mar 18 '11 at 9:39
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No offense intended ; that is not at what I was trying to convey. I saw that several reasonable answers had already been given, and expected that you would regard them as more authoritative than a comment. Use of a formal writing style implies an arbiter of form and style, however, even if it a loose set of guidelines. Me saying, in effect, follow the preference of whoever you are trying to impress was intended to be jocular. If it's not apparent, to me, prescriptivism in this area is best left to the arbiters of style in that area. If you need more guidance, please add more detail. –  jbelacqua Mar 18 '11 at 14:56
    
For what it's worth, I also consider it unlikely that the use of non-contracted forms will make the writing sound stilted. (And I probably should have added a 'smiley' to my original comment, in retrospect.) –  jbelacqua Mar 18 '11 at 15:00
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5 Answers 5

Try to avoid using the contracted form in formal texts:

Contractions are used sparingly in formal written English. The APA style guide prefers that contractions, including Latin abbreviations, not be used in scholarly papers, and recommends that the equivalent phrase in English be written out.

source

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N.B. The suggestion of one particular style guide doesn't mean that that particular style guide is actually followed universally. I suspect that the Wikipedia article underestimates the actual use of contractions even in rather "formal" contexts. –  Neil Coffey Mar 14 '11 at 10:57
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It is frowned upon to use contractions in formal writing. However, these "rules" or "standards" are quickly becoming guidelines. For instance, it's often advised to avoid negations in formal writing. So, "do not" shouldn't be used at all. But there are times when the negated construction doesn't have the same meaning as the positive construction, and meaning is sometimes compromised for form. The author Cormac McCarthy even uses "dont" in his works.

A good piece of writing should be clear and natural. If you find that "don't" is more natural than "do not," use "don't." Don't fall prey to traditionalists.

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Contracted forms should not be used in formal reports or letters, only to be used in emails, informal writing and the spoken word.

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Why shouldn't contracted forms be used in formal reports, letters, etc.? Isn't the "rule," which prohibits using contractions in formal writing, antiquated? –  Jon Mar 19 '11 at 22:05
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Contractions generally sound a little more informal than their non-contracted equivalents. However, they also sound more natural, as non-contracted forms are practically never used in speech (except e.g. for emphasis or in cases where contractions are not grammatical).

Whether a particular piece of writing is "formal" enough to warrant avoiding contractions is really quite subjective. If you look at many scholarly books and even journal articles, you will find that many (native speaking) authors actually do use contractions and their respective editors have decided that they're happy with them. I would argue that contractions are almost always possible in e-mails: if the context was that formal, you probably wouldn't be communicating by e-mail in the first place. But as I say, it is a subjective decision.

On the other hand, if you are writing in a formal context such as a journal article or a formal letter to a company and can't decide whether or not to use contractions, then I think that avoiding contractions will always be a "safe" decision in such formal contexts.

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I think this is the most reasonable approach... –  jbelacqua Mar 18 '11 at 15:46
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As with all writing it is important to consider your audience's expectations. You could do a brief analysis of others' writings in the same field and publication type. If they use lots of contractions then it is safe for you to do so too. If they don't and you do, then you may draw attention away from the content of your writing to the style in which it is written. If this is an aim, then fine, but you may undermine your credibility with some readers.

It's also worth pointing out that some contractions (such as the ones in this post: don't, it's) are far more common and therefore more likely to be accepted than others. I would be very wary of using less common contractions such as "they're", "he'll", "mustn't", "would've", etc.

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