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Possible duplicate of:
Using contracted forms (“don't”, “let's”) in a formal text
Usage of contractions like “it's” and “that's” in textbooks
Should contractions be avoided in formal emails?

In Germany, our English teachers always taught us that contractions like "didn't", "he's", "won't" and so on are perfectly valid to use also in written English. The only difference to writing the long version, consisting of two words, was that it would only count as one word.

However, in Singapore, where I currently am for an exchange year, if you use these contractions in a test, they will be marked as a mistake. The teacher says it is not allowed to use them in written English.

So my question is: Are the German or the Singaporean teachers right? Is there any official rule on this? How is this marked in other countries' schools?

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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Apr 10 '11 at 9:09

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

Do you mean contractions, rather than contradictions? –  Steve Melnikoff Apr 9 '11 at 17:22
@Steve: I just edited to fix that. –  Marthaª Apr 9 '11 at 17:22
Whoops.. I must be tired already :D –  eWolf Apr 9 '11 at 17:24
Singaporean academic freedom: written contractions don't get you caned –  Pete Wilson Apr 9 '11 at 20:32
I don't think this is a duplicate of the other questions: this is asking whether contractions are forbidden in all English writing. –  Marthaª Apr 10 '11 at 13:25

8 Answers 8

up vote 17 down vote accepted

Are you sure your teacher said "written English", not "formal English"? Not all written English is formal, and not all formal English is written. Contractions are fine in informal English, be it written or spoken, but they are generally frowned upon in formal contexts (again, written or spoken).

Forbidding contractions in all written English is stuff and nonsense: if they were never allowed to be written, how would anyone know how to spell them? Why would you need to learn where the apostrophe goes?

That said, your teacher is perfectly within her rights to forbid contractions in her classroom, and you'd be well-advised to avoid them in the assignments you turn in to her. :)

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In informal English, the long version is used effectively for emphasis ("I didn't do that, I most certainly did not.") –  ChrisO Apr 9 '11 at 17:41
Yes, I'm sure she said "written English", because we're currently writing speeches... We are thus allowed to use the contractions when we're speaking, but not when we're writing. Which is, in my opinion, kind of annoying, especially as the usage of a contraction is a choice to be made, as @ChrisO points out correctly. –  eWolf Apr 10 '11 at 14:49

I am a Singaporean who grew up in an American school in Taiwan, and moved back here when I was around 8 years old. After moving back to Singapore, I experienced the same problem as you did, in addition to various other linguistic adjustments I had to make.

After so many years of studying in Singapore, I've learnt that it is simply a matter of convention which more likely than not originated from the British (which the education system here emulates). If you do not want to be marked down, do as the Romans (in this case, Singaporeans) do and follow the rules. It would also be wise to clarify any other differences in the expected format or writing style for your test with your teacher, since he/she is marking it, after all.

Some extra tidbits of information...

Language itself as well as the 'rules' dictated by groups/organisations with power or authority vary wildly all over the world even within the same language, and even more so for English since it has spread to so many parts of the globe. So realistically speaking, there is no 'official rule' for any language in the world. Even if some languages such as the French have large, esteemed institutions which are overly zealous in guarding the 'purity' of the language, language variation will nevertheless continue to exist at various levels of society; no one speaker is exactly the same as another, and language is inherently creative in the first place. Efforts to restrict this variation tend to exist at higher levels of education or formality simply for the sake of some semblance of standardisation and clarity.

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Contractions can be used in informal, usually spoken, English. They are not much used in formal, usually written, English. The basic determiner is whether the passage is informal or formal, not whether it is written or spoken.

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They are both right - but in different senses.

There is clearly no law about using the contractions in English writing - you will find them all over the place in literature, in informal writing, in opinion pieces in magazines - hell, the internet has billions of the things (literally!).

That said - in formal writing (for instance: serious newspaper articles, academic papers, legal documents), the contractions are not used - they have a connotation of informality and give a conversational (rather than serious or formal) feel to them.

So the German teachers are preparing you to meet the usages that you will likely encounter most often, and the Singaporeans are training you in formal writing. Both are valuable in their own way.

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And even this isn't always the case, you find contractions all over the place in academic papers (I'm, talking about scientific papers) –  crasic Apr 9 '11 at 17:51

Since by the sounds of things you grew up in Germany, you might consider that broadly speaking, the situation is similar to contractions with German prepositions (e.g. "in dem" vs "im", "von dem" vs "vom", "unter dem" vs "unterm"): they occur to some extent in writing, but which precise contractions are appropriate in which writing context is a combination of personal preference, degree of formality, purpose of writing...

Using contractions perhaps gives the impression that the writer is 'conveying information to you in a straightforward manner', and so contractions are perfectly common and acceptable in many written contexts such as manuals, newspaper and magazine articles, advertising brochures etc.

They are usually avoided in a text that wants to convey an imperssion of being "scholarly"[*] or "very formal and authoritative" (e.g. legal contracts).

I can't really reconcile the stance of your teacher in Singapore with actual usage. I suggest two possibilities:

(a) your teacher is incompetent (or at least not being entirely honest about the limitations of their knowledge);

(b) your teacher knows deep down that contractions are used in writing, but they're taking a practical stance of "teaching a simplistic rule that won't lose you marks in an exam"-- I don't know what language exams are like in Singapore, but if they're anything like they are in the UK, it wouldn't be the first time that an exam tests against a grossly simplified and artificial, idealised version of a language...

[*] Although actually even in scholarly journal articles, contractions aren't necessarily outlawed.

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Regarding contractions in German: To some extent, you can decide between contractions and the long forms. However, "unterm" is clearly marked as colloquial in the Duden and thus cannot be used in written German, while "vom" and "im" are allowed. –  eWolf Apr 10 '11 at 5:51

There are some contractions which are conventional, e.g., "it's" is reserved for "it is", whereas "its" is used to indicate the possessive. Example:

It's obvious that its engine is not working if the car will not start.

Write everything out fully and you will avoid these problem areas.

There is the consideration that your instructor is too proud of his own ability. I had a French teacher who was very proud because he was often mistaken for a Parisian when he was young, and tried to teach his accent to his own students. Unfortunately, he was teaching them to speak the French equivalent of "CorBlimey Cockney"!

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@eWolf, I think you mean contractions and not contradictions. If so, contractions are permissible however they are considered to be an "informal" style. I agree with your instructors if you are writing in a formal style. But remember, this is only a style. I believe it is better to learn to write in the formal style first. Informal styles (which include contractions), are perfectly ok in normal, day-to-day, usage.

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It is indeed considered normal practice to avoid them in written English, except, of course, in quoted speech (which use contractions quite commonly).

  • "He did not wait for me."
  • "'John, you didn't wait for me like I asked,' said Sally."
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