Every editor I have ever worked with has crossed out all contractions in my copy. I was told by professors, proofreaders and other writers not to use contractions except in dialogue. I have advised writers not to use contractions in their writing other than dialogue. It appears this is bad advice, sorta.
I re-blogged a post by Joe Bunting on The Write Practice blog titled, “Want to Be a Better Writer? Cut These 7 Words.” I thought the article was great advice because it eliminated the pillars of passive voice without the burden of explaining the difference between passive and active voice. Omitting these words forces the writer to use active voice.
The words or types of words Joe cited are:
1. One of
2. The Somes (sometimes, something, someone, somewhere, somewhat, somebody, somehow)
4. To Be verbs before -ing verbs
7. Leading words: so, mostly, most times, in order to, often, oftentimes
I found this post helpful and re-blogged it adding two additional words to the list.
Joe emailed me and agreed about ‘just,’ but not about contractions. We had an enlightening exchange about the use of contractions in fiction. Joe is amazing with statistics! We came to a consensus on it, and it caused me to change my stand on contractions altogether. And taught me to check my numbers.
I am retracting my stand on contractions.
Be sure to check-out Joe’s take on it “Contractions List: When to Use and When to Avoid.”
A Brief History of Contractions
Contractions came into extensive use with the printing press. They existed in speech prior to that, but not very often in written communication. Remember a letter or book was a precious thing back then. If you were going to take the time and expense to write, you were not going to shortchange the recipient. Sure when space was tight, with paper and postage expensive, they did use contractions, but not very often. Spelling was not standardize, if only I lived back then–sigh.
After the printing press, contractions became more frequent in written text. Each page of type was composed by hand. The metal bars (once made out of wood) with a letter on the end were called sorts. Sorts were formed into words, then into lines, then into pages. The pages were tightly bound together to make a form. The form was inked in a press and pressed onto the paper. This is a simplified description of the process.
The photo gives a better sense of it. Each metal bar you see in the type case in the background is a letter. Typesetters assembled the text on a composing stick backwards. This set is from the 1920s. Notice the lower case ‘b’ and ‘p’ are the same letters and so are ‘p’ and ‘q.’ (Ever hear the phrase, ‘mind your Ps and Qs’?).
The most common letter in the English language is ‘e.’ Very often typesetters would run out of ‘e’ when setting pages. They would have to wait until the formed pages were printed, dried, cleaned and set again before they could continue printing a book or pamphlet. The solution was to replaced the ‘e’ with the less common apostrophe. It became a space saving as well as a money saving device for both client and printer. Even back then, time was money.
Poets used the apostrophe to denote the omission of a vowel, usually at the end of a line, signaling the reader to elide the two words to fit the meter of the poem. The Orient became th’Orient. This may be where printers got the idea.
To Use or Not To Use Contractions
In the digital age, contractions are not needed. If the letter ‘e’ is used a lot, it is not necessary to spend thousands of dollars and many man hours to have more made. We strike a key with a finger, and an ‘e’ is freshly minted. Eeeeee. Look at me making ‘e.’
People use contractions when they speak as they always have. Americans elide all over the place with some elisions, y’ll, being identifiers for particular geographical areas. But do they belong in non-dialogue text?
Despite what many editors, professors and grammar police have told me, contractions are alive and well in today’s fiction. From Neil Gaiman to Catherine Coulter to Joe Hill to J.K. Rowling; you will find contractions in almost every paragraph.
Does this mean you should use them willy-nilly all over the place? No.
Let’s (ha ha) define what we are talking about. Any word can be a contracted. For the purposes of this article, it is the common contractions meant and not the Old English contractions or those used to write a dialect. Here is a list:
There are others.
Here is the deal; in dialogue how your character speaks is how your character speaks. I’ll cover writing dialogue in another post.
Clarity is key, and some contractions are better than others. The contractions I’d, He’d, She’d, They’d could be I would or I did. The context dictates which it is. But it can be unclear. Why take the chance? I would only use these in dialogue, if at all.
Certain contractions such as don’t, can’t, it’s and to some extent let’s are so common their full versions look and sound weird. In fact, these are the contractions found most often in fiction. I believe don’t is number one.
If your novel is written in a particular character’s voice, then you must use the same contractions the character would use in their speech. But be careful.
Keep in mind don’t, can’t, isn’t and any other contraction ending in n’t frame a sentence in the negative. This can cause some awkward constructions. Be mindful of it. Clarity again, without it nothing else matters. The goal is to be as clear and concise as possible.
The same goes for the ‘ll contractions and ‘d contractions because the first puts the sentence in future perfect tense and the second in past perfect tense; both are wordy, confusing tenses to work in.
Avoid contraction issues by asking these three questions:
Is the meaning eminently clear?
If yes, use the contraction. If no, don’t.
Is there a better way to say it?
If yes, use it. If no, use the contraction.
Does it fit the tone of my story?
If yes, use the contraction. If not, don’t.
They’re, you’re, it’s and who’s
Be careful with they’re, you’re, it’s and who’s. They are often mistyped as there, their, your, its and whose . I never use these contractions unless it would sound weird not to.
3 responses to “Contractions: Do or Don’t?”
A really interesting post. I do use contractions outside dialogue – all the time. As you say, it seems many authors do. When writing YA, I do use them because it would feel too formal not to – young people talk and think in contractions and text speak, so it seems to fit. Perhaps if I was writing a serious, literary novel – or something for adults set in the past – I wouldn’t. An interesting post and food for thought.
Text speak!!! I’ll have to make a note of that one for a future post. I read a series of YA novels told through text messages, messenger and email. They were well done.
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Haven’t gone as far as using text speak in descriptive passages – maybe that’ll be common in the future. I don’t use text speak, so would be in danger of sounding ridiculous if I tried!