Before I began editing professionally, it never occurred to me that the use of contractions in literature would be contentious on any level. In fact, there are a number of similar issues which always struck me as uncontroversial, and over the coming months I’m sure I’ll be writing about them right here on the Word Alive Press blog. As for contractions specifically, I was unprepared for the onslaught of authors who seemed to insist on banning them outright.
First of all, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Let’s define what a contraction is, for it may not be obvious. In English, we often blend common word combinations into single words with an apostrophe in the middle. For example, “do not” becomes shortened to “don’t,” “I am” becomes shortened to “I’m,” etc. Now that we’re on the same page, let’s dive into the abiding question of their use and whether/how they are appropriate.
It’s possible you’re operating under the misapprehension that contractions are “bad” as a result of an English teacher beating it into you that they have no place in the written language. This is perhaps a reflection of a time when writing was a more formal endeavour, when students were being trained not to write books but instead to write essays and cover letters. Indeed, in these particular modes of writing, it is often wise to avoid contractions. Contractions are inherently informal, so the more formal the tone of your writing, the fewer contractions you will likely want to use. That said, outside the academic world of term papers and doctorate studies, we’re increasingly living in an age where one can feel comfortable using contractions in almost all forms of writing without risk of offending the reader. As a result, one’s appetite for contractions may come down to a question of personal taste.
However, personal taste should never prevent you from communicating at your best, and that’s why writers work with editors. The truth is that abstaining from contractions prevents you from communicating your best almost all the time—especially when you’re writing books, regardless of whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.
In the same way that you may avoid contractions in formal writing, contractions also contribute to the illusion of formality, often when that illusion creates problems. For example, in a memoir of your life, the last thing you want to do is create distance between you and your reader. You want to draw the reader in and experience your thoughts and feelings and stories. Formality engenders narrative distance. Here’s an example:
Without contractions: “The tears could not flow because I was not able to understand what they had said to me.”
With contractions: “The tears couldn’t flow because I wasn’t able to understand what they’d said to me.”
In this sentence, we have three possible contractions. Read both sentences and decide which flows better. Remember, there is a music and cadence to good writing. Which sentence conveys more emotion? Would anyone say the lack of contractions helps to better communicate the intended meaning? Admittedly, you could take or leave that last contraction (they’d). I probably would use it, but realize that you don’t have to use a contraction every time.
If you’re not sure whether the contraction is right for the sentence, try reading it aloud. Nothing helps you achieve good rhythm and cadence better than reading your writing aloud! Then try reading back this very post without any contractions and see what it sounds like. Probably a little stilted. It would almost certainly be less effective.
Now try speaking without contractions for a day and see how your friends and family react to you. This is key, because it gets to the point of writing believable dialogue. People speak in contractions. It’s as simple as that. When you’re reading a novel and a character says something like, “I do not like the way that you are talking to me,” you may let out an involuntary cringe. When I read that, I can’t help by hearing a robot voice in my head.
For most of you who read this, you’re writing books (or poems or short stories), not formal essays. If someone told you back in high school that you’d be docked a letter grade for the use of contractions, excise that bad advice from your memory and open your eyes to the wide, wonderful world of natural writing that contractions allow.
Pro Tip: If you ever find yourself wanting to writing “should of,” chances are what you’re searching for is “should have” or “should’ve.” This common contraction blunder very quickly sends a message of amateurism.
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.