What’s the use of contractions?

A client recently asked me why we often recommend using contractions as part of our approach to plain English. This client said she considered her publication to be ‘formal’, and she didn’t feel contractions fitted with the formal tone she wanted to convey.

This question is a common one and I was glad the client asked.

What are contractions?

Contractions are a shortened form of one or two words (with one of the words usually being a verb). In the shortened version, an apostrophe takes the place of missing letters.

Common contractions include: I’m (I am), there’s (there is), can’t (cannot), and it’s (it is).

Image, words 'I am' and contraction 'I'm'.

Contractions improve readability. Image by Logictheo / CC BY-SA

Why use contractions?

Plain English is very much about writing as you’d talk. When we talk, we’re more likely to say ‘I’ve done that’ than ‘I have done that’. We advocate doing exactly the same thing in writing to give your document better flow and make reading easier.

From a plain language perspective, contractions help to make writing seem more natural and less ‘stuffy’. Researchers have also shown that they enhance readability.

Are there exceptions?

There are exceptions to this, though. Writing words out in full can emphasise a statement. So sometimes it is right to avoid contractions, such as in this very sentence!

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2 responses to “What’s the use of contractions?”

  1. You mention that research has shown contractions improve readability. I wonder if you could dig out some citations? Contractions can be a disputed topic, so being able to cite the research would help.

    • melissamebus says:

      ​You’re right that this can be a disputed topic. Here’s where my reference to research on the topic came from: Danielson, Wayne A. and Larosa, Dominic L. ‘A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic Age of Novels’. Journal of Reading 33, no.3 (1989): 194, 196.

      I hope this helps. It’s definitely handy to have research to back up recommendations!

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