One of the most difficult things even for native speakers of English to learn is the correct use of contractions. To this day when I type it and want to follow it with s I have to spend a fraction of a second reading the sentence out loud to see if it is will fit. Then there's the question of where the apostrophe belongs. Why isn't it is'nt?1 What makes all this worse is that the first time you use its instead of it's people start sending you links explaining how to write properly.

I can think of two reasons to still use contractions:

  1. It's slightly faster to write. (But only if you don't have to think about proper usage.)

  2. We use contractions in verbal communication and contractions reflect the sound of our speech.

I know the usual advice is to avoid them in formal writing, but I'm wondering if it mightn't be better to avoid them altogether. Maybe it's an advanced technique like writing in dialect.

Wh'tcha yall rec'n?

Footnote: 1. Stop! Please don't tell me!

closed as not constructive by JSBձոգչ, Dusty, Kit Z. Fox, user13141, z7sg Ѫ Oct 27 '11 at 20:22

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  • Misuse of its/it's is irrelevant to OP's main point, and has been repeatedly covered here anyway. If OP can't remember that one he should just write "it is" whenever that's what he means, then he can forget about whether to use an apostrophe or not. For the rest, given the final sentence I suggest he might do well to forget about using contractions altogether. – FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 18:12
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    Since when is English (or any language for that matter) about what is better? – Sam Oct 27 '11 at 18:29
  • @Sam: I don't mean better in a Platonic sense if that's what you're getting at. I mean better in terms of smoothing out the bumps in communicating with, teaching, and learning written English. Perhaps the word I ought to have used is "more practical"? – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 18:53

It’s likely that contractions are becoming more frequent in writing. I’ll repeat what ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ has to say of contractions:

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.

The 'interactive quality' that the guide mentions, I take to mean the quality that contractions have, because of their informal nature, to invite a dialogue, whether real or imagined, between writer and reader.

  • Can you elaborate on what is meant by "interactive quality"? This seems to be a purpose #3 that I hadn't considered. – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 18:49
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    I didn't write it, guv, I only quoted it. Still, I take it that it means that contractions, because of their informal nature, invite a dialogue, whether real or imagined, between writer and reader. – Barrie England Oct 27 '11 at 18:55
  • It's a lovely quote and your explanation helps. I wonder if you would consider editing your answer to include the relevant bit of the comment? – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 19:01
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    @JonEricson: Done. – Barrie England Oct 27 '11 at 19:09

The standard injunction to "avoid contractions in formal writing" has been demonstrated to be a canard. In fact, formal writing widely employs contractions.

The key matter is that some contractions (this'll, somebody'd) will sound breezy, and the over-use of contractions will lend a given text a folksy tone.

On the other hand, where natural flow and idiom would suggest a contraction, and the uncontracted form would sound overly stilted and heavy, a common contraction (such as "don't," "can't," etc.) will not raise eyebrows.

This does require a feel for the language and an ear for idiom. Perhaps this is why you will find some authorities warning against contractions in formal writing - they feel it's best to err on the side of caution. But that would perforce be an act of erring nonetheless.

Also, don't stress over the correct use of "its" vs "it's," as even professional writers and editors have to eye their usage carefully.


Where to put the apostrophe is a simple rule: It goes where you have omitted one or more letters. So for example, if you contract "is not", it becomes "isn't", because the letter you have omitted is the "o" between "n" and "t". We don't put an apostrophe for an omitted space -- that doesn't count.

The difference between "its" and "it's" is that the second is a contraction and the first is not. Perhaps that particular case is confusing because "its" is a possessive pronoun, and we are used to putting apostrophes in possessives: "the car's door" versus "its door", NOT "it's door". Someone once pointed out to me that we don't put an apostrophe in "his" even though it is also possessive, i.e. we write "his shirt", not "hi's shirt". I found that helpful to get it straight in my head.

Routine contractions like "I'm" and "don't" are not inappropriate in almost any writing. The only place I'd avoid such common contractions would be in writing a school paper where very pedantic rules can apply.

One pet peeve of mine: Using a contraction, and then adding extra words because the sentence now sounds too clipped. I often hear people say "Where's it at?" The word "at" is superfluous and incorrect. What they want to say is, "Where is it?" They contract this to "Where's it?", but that sounds too abrupt, so they add another word to smooth it out. Arggh!

"yall" should be "y'all": It's a contraction for "you all".

  • Please stop! ;-) Seriously, the question isn't about the rules, but about whether the rules are worth the effort to all involved. – Jon Ericson Oct 27 '11 at 18:45
  • The point I was trying to make is that the rules aren't very complicated -- they can be summed up in a couple of sentences. Therefore, there is not a lot of effort involved. Therefore, it doesn't take much benefit for it to be "worth the effort". – Jay Aug 17 '15 at 21:27

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