Tag Archives: contractions

Can Contractions Go Too Far?

Yes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Contractions exist to help written words sound the way we talk because we do not pronounce every letter in every word as if we are robots.

Instead, we drop letters and slide words together, and contractions depict that. But they can get weird if you try to follow speech too closely.

Such as when positive “would’ve” — would have — becomes negative “would’nt’ve” — would not have.

The same goes for for “could’ve” or “should’ve.” Sometimes you see these three expressions as “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” and they mean the exactly same thing. But in business writing I’d never advise turning a standard “could have” into a slangy “coulda.”

Nonstandard English is best confined to dialogue in creative writing where you’re trying to make a character’s speech distinctive. It’s extremely difficult to do well.

One common, simple contraction is “there’s,” but it’s tricky. It means “there is” and it’s singular. However, it’s often used with plural subjects because the contraction for “there are” would be “there’re,” which looks strange and is even hard to pronounce.

There’s people who aren’t going to agree with me about contractions.

Translation: There is people who are not going to agree with me about contractions.

Would you say that? No, I wouldn’t either. So let’s not write it.

On the other hand, we do have “you’re” for “you are.” Go figure. English is so quirky.

We should avoid some contractions simply because they don’t look good written, even if we often say them. One example is “that’ll” — that will — even though Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison used it with great success in a song: “That’ll Be the Day.”

Then there’s “there’ll” — there will — which sends my eyes and ears over the edge.

Conversely, a contraction sometimes doesn’t go far enough. such as on this license plate:

Apostrophe-VaLicensePlate

There’s no such word in English as “dont.” Microsoft Word won’t even let me type it that way without automatically inserting the apostrophe.

When at work, as long as you confine contractions to two words and put an apostrophe where letters are omitted, consider yourself on solid ground.

What’s Wrong with Contractions in Business Writing?

The short answer is, absolutely nothing. But in my workshops, someone almost always asks, “Aren’t contractions forbidden in business writing?”

Recently, a client converted a print newsletter to online-only and banned contractions in all feature articles from the executive team and those by HQ on benefits and personnel matters.

Such pieces are typically dry even on a good day, so making their tone even stiffer and more formal — to be read on the easy, breezy Internet, no less — leaves me shaking my head.

Do you remember Data, the android on Star Trek: Next Generation? One of his biggest regrets was that he hadn’t been programmed for contractions, because he thought they’d make him sound more human.

When you eliminate all contractions from your writing, you sound like Data.

“We are happy to announce a new benefit that is most requested; you will be allowed to work from home on Fridays.”

“We are sorry for issues you have had with our website. It is our pleasure to make sure you receive service that is reliable.”

Simple contractions such as it’s and that’s definitely have a place in business writing. Just “listen” as you write and sprinkle contractions in where you would use them in conversation.

My only caution is to be careful if your readers speak English as a second language. In that case, you would want to keep the wording clean and simple to aid comprehension.

Coming up: Can you take contractions too far?