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Contractions - Use in Formal Writing

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Before we leave our general discussion of verbs, we should pause to contemplate contractions. You remember them, don’t you? There. I just used one: don’t. You form contractions by compressing two words into one. One of those words is ordinarily a verb form.

For example, in the sentence above, instead of writing “do you not,” I wrote “don’t you.” The contraction don’t compresses do and not.

Others include won’t (will not), haven’t (have not), could’ve (could have), isn’t (is not), there’s (there is), it’s (it is), and many more.

Contractions - Use in Formal Writing

The issue becomes: Should you use contractions in formal writing?

Yes. Consider this advice from Rudolf Flesch:

Don’t start using contractions at every single opportunity. It’s not as simple as that. Contractions have to be used with care. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t. It depends on whether you would use the contraction in speaking that particular sentence (e.g. in this sentence I would say you would and not you’d). It also depends on whether the contraction would help or hinder the rhythm that would suit your sentence for proper emphasis. So don’t try to be consistent about this; it doesn’t work. You have to go by feel, not by rule. Rudolf Flesch, The Art of Readable Writing (1949).

Many people make horrible mistakes with contractions. For example, they will use the contraction it’s as the possessive of the pronoun it. I discuss this problem in the section on pronouns (see Parts of Speech). You’ll also find a discussion in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

As another example, sometimes you’ll see the misuse of the contraction could’ve. Because this contraction sounds like “could of,” sometimes you’ll see “I could of made a fortune.” Truly nasty.

As a final example, people routinely misuse the contraction there’s. It’s a contraction of there is. The expression is followed by a noun or a pronoun. If that noun or pronoun is plural, then you may not even use there’s. The verb must be the plural are. The proper contraction would be there’re, which is impossible to pronounce. You’ll find a discussion of this problem in the eBook Common Grammatical Mistakes.

So, yes, use contractions in formal writing. But do so cautiously. Consider your readers. If they would fall over in a faint, then it is probably best to write all the words and avoid the contraction.

Hard Copy

You may download our entire discussion of the Parts of Speech. Simply download the Grammar eBook Understanding the Parts of Speech.


Previous: Conjugating in the Progressive Aspect Next: A Summary of Verbs

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