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Using contracted forms (“don't”, “let's”) in a formal text
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Are contractions like “didn't” forbidden in written English?
Is it better to write without contractions? E.g. “cannot” instead of “can't”

I've been just told that usage of 's, 'd and other similar suffixes is considered to be colloquial and isn't (isn't - another example) acceptable in formal letters. And that instead of that the full words should be used, such as "it is", "I would", "I had", etc

Is that true?

PS: I tried to look at Chicago Style Guide (I've heard of it but never had a chance to look through it) but found that it's paid. If anyone know what CSG thinks about that or any other authoritative style guide - it would be nice if you mention that as well (if only it doesn't violate a particular style guide terms of service)

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marked as duplicate by MετάEd, RegDwigнt Sep 7 '12 at 8:39

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More like this belongs on writersSE. –  Kris Sep 7 '12 at 7:12
    
@Kris: isn't that too many english-related stackexchanges nowadays? :-S Sooooooooo confusing :-( –  zerkms Sep 7 '12 at 7:13
    
Btw, between formal and colloquial is informal, I suppose. –  Kris Sep 7 '12 at 7:13
    
That should be no problem for you, if need be, the post can be migrated there. –  Kris Sep 7 '12 at 7:14

2 Answers 2

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Such choices depend on the formality of the context and writers have to judge what will make the most favourable impact on readers. That said, there is a trend towards informality in most forms of writing, at least in the UK. Here’s what ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ advises:

In the past [contractions] were felt to be too colloquial for the written medium, and editors of academic journals are still inclined to edit them out. The writers of formal documents may feel that they undermine the authority and dignity of their words. But the interactive quality that contractions lend to a style is these days often sought, in business and elsewhere. They facilitate reading by reducing the space taken up by predictable elements of the verb phrase, and help to establish the underlying rhythms of prose.

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Is it not so, boyo. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 7 '12 at 7:56

It isn't as true for isn't, I don't think.

If I was writing for a formal audience, there are some contractions I'd avoid, and others I'd have no problem using.

Some examples where I would NOT use the contraction:

The experiment could've been set up differently. (use could have instead)
This experiment's the first one of three that we ran. (use experiment is instead)
I'd surmised the experiment would have yielded different results. (use I had instead)
This'll be the last experiment we run at this facility. (use this will)

But I probably wouldn't have a problem with using these:

This experiment doesn't invalidate previously collected data.
These experiments won't be the last of our work.
We're confident our data is free from instrumentation errors.

I don't know if there's a hard-and-fast rule for when to avoid certain contractions, but it wouldn't hurt to follow these general guidelines:

  • avoid using contractions that aren't listed in some dictionaries (for example, my Mac's built-in dictionary has entries for isn't, wasn't, and I'm, but it doesn't have could've or this'll).
  • avoid using a contraction that could be expanded in more than one way, if the intended expansion isn't abundantly clear (for example, he'd can be a contraction of he had or he would).
  • don't use 's as a contraction for is on words like experiment or example (this parenthetical example's breaking that rule, for example).
  • avoid 'd as a contraction for ed on a verb (I address'd that because you inquired about it in your question).

This website has some good comments on the matter:

Some people are under the impression that contractions should never appear in writing, but this belief is mistaken. The use of contractions is directly related to tone. In informal writing (from text messages and blogs to memos and personal essays), we often rely on contractions to maintain a colloquial tone. In more formal writing assignments (such as academic reports or term papers), avoiding contractions is a way of establishing a more serious tone.

Before deciding whether to use contractions in a writing assignment, consider your audience and your purpose for writing.

I pretty much agree with that, although, I think that avoiding contractions as "a way of establishing a more serious tone" can be taken a bit too far, particularly with the to be and not contractions, such as isn't, wasn't, don't, and doesn't. Don't be overly apprehensive about those.

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