Use contractions with care

Earnsy Liu | April 17, 2024

At Write, we’re all about making information approachable and accessible — making information sound human and easy to understand. So should you use contractions when you write? (This means shortening I am to I’m, you are to you’re, will not to won’t, and so on.)

Yes and no.

Think about your main audience

Contractions may sound natural and improve tone. Which would you rather read?

‘You’re a genius!’
‘You are a genius!’

‘You can’t open that door.’
‘You cannot open that door.’

A cartoon image of Albert Einstein looking surprised. His eyes are wide and his jaw has dropped open.

Should you write ‘You’re a genius’, or ‘You are a genius’? / AI-generated image by Microsoft Copilot

If you’re like me, you probably prefer you’re and can’t. They sound more natural, and can’t sounds softer than cannot.

But do you and I represent the typical reader? English is my first language. It might be yours too. I dream in English, count in English, swear in English, and I’m literate.

Published research on how contractions affect reading seems to be rare, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some people find contractions trickier. They challenge people who did not grow up with English, and people with reading difficulties. ‘Although some people may understand and use contractions in their everyday speech, they can take time to recognise them in writing,’ writes Joanne Schofield, a content designer. She’s not alone — her colleagues had noticed similar issues.

Read how using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible — Medium

One response to a blog post noted, ‘Personally, I have seen people with low literacy, low vision and dyslexia struggle with all kinds of contractions.’ Another time, the same person — Steven Proctor — wrote, ‘I’ve seen people of all reading abilities struggle to read and understand a lot of contractions like isn’t, can’t, don’t, didn’t, won’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, we’ll, you’ll and who’s.’

‘People of all reading abilities’ is a lot of people. Perhaps it could even be me when I’m tired and feeling rushed.

Read Proctor’s comment — GOV.UK

Be extra careful with negative contractions

Negative contractions — like can’t and don’t — seem particularly tricky. Seeing not written out, as in cannot and do not, seems to be a big help.

The UK’s National Health Service refers to non-published research confirming that readers can struggle with negative contractions. The NHS tells us that the UK’s Government Digital Service ‘…found that many users find negative contractions harder to read and they sometimes misread them as the opposite of what they say.’

Similarly, the NHS.UK medicines team also observed that do not in instructions was ‘clearer and more emphatic’ than don’t.

Read the advice on contractions — NHS

Read the full article on contractions

If you’d like more details, go to the original article on TechCommNZ’s site.

Think before you use contractions 

Find out how to sound human

If you need to limit how much you use contractions, how can you make your writing sound natural? Use these tips.

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