Tuesday Tip

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Contractions are common place in speech. If you say “can’t” or “wouldn’t” in conversation, you aren’t likely to be called out for being “too informal.” However, contractions are still a little controversial in writing. So, how should you use contractions in writing? There isn’t one correct answer, because it all depends on your personal style, your publisher’s house style, and your audience. You’ll get a lot of contradictory advice from editors and writers. After all, you can’t say contradiction without contraction. Some claim that if you use contractions in the narrative, you have to use it in dialogue and vise versa. Others say you can’t use contractions at all. So what is a writer to do? Here is some advice on using contractions correctly.

Examples of common contractions:

  • I’m: I am
  • Isn’t: is not
  • Can’t: can not
  • They’d: they would
  • Won’t: will not
  • Wasn’t: was not
  • Shouldn’t: should not
  • Wouldn’t: would not

An apostrophe is used to replace all omitted letters.

Example: Do not = Don’t

The apostrophe replaces the extra “o” which is the only sound you don’t hear.

Example: Can not = Can’t

The apostrophe replaces the “n” and the “o” because an apostrophe can replace multiple letters.

Using contractions in dialogue

Most editors and writers will agree, contractions can (and often should) be used in dialogue. They make dialogue sound more natural by mimicking how people actually talk. They can also be used for accents and dialects.

Using contractions in narrative

This is where the controversy starts. There are a lot of people who say you can never, never use them in narrative, but that simply isn’t true. Many authoritative sources have used, or suggest using, contractions in narrative. Famous authors, like Ray Bradberry, have used them. Writer’s Digest uses them. Even the Chicago Manual recommends using them to enhance flow. You just have to consider your audience. If your audience is a college professor, do not use contractions if you want a good grade.The more formal the writing, the less you should use contractions.  If you use them in narrative, make sure you are consistent. Never use them where the meaning could be unclear.

Example: “I’d” could be “I never” or “I would never”

Unless the context is clear, don’t use I’d.

Hint: If you use contractions in narrative, make sure you use respected, legit contractions. The list of acceptable contractions is long, so I’ll just give you an example of one that is not. That contraction is “ain’t.”

Rules for Ain’t

I recommend avoiding “ain’t” except for dialogue, because its usage is generally disrespected. It’s a fairly new contraction, but that isn’t the reason it’s so controversial. Using “ain’t” is confusing, because it has a variety of meanings depending on context. Originally created to replace am not, it is now also used to replace are not, is not, has not, and have not. It just causes more confusing than it’s worth. Personally, I don’t like it. I don’t think it even follows the rules. Shouldn’t it be an’t? Where did that “i” come from?

Common mistakes

Its and It’s

Its is possessive

Example: The cat ate its food.

It’s means “it has” or “it is”

Example: It’s going to rain, It’s been awhile

They’re, Their, and There

There is an adverb that shows a place or position

Example: He went over there

Their is possessive

Example: Their car is in the shop.

They’re is the contraction for they are

Example: They’re a cute couple.

Placement of contractions

Another common mistake writers make is where they place contractions in a sentence, especially when they place them at the end of sentences. They look terrible and are confusing at the end of sentences.

Example: That is what it’s.

Correction: That is what it is.

Example: He is not, but they’re.

Correction: He is not, but they are.

These tips should help you decide if you will use contractions in your own writing and how to use them correctly. Do you use them in your narrative? How about dialogue? I’d love to hear from you.

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3 thoughts on “Tuesday Tip

  1. smwright

    Contractions for me often come down to style choice by the writer and knowing your target audience. For scientific, academic or technical writing projects, you never want to use contractions unless some one you have quoted uses one. When I entered my newspaper firm, I avoided contractions in everything but quotes; however, as time passed and I witnessed coworkers using them, I opened my writing to include contractions in the body of my article. As far as creative writing goes, I see a world wide open for expression with rules to be pushed to the limit or even broken. I have used contractions in both narratives and dialogues, and I always ask myself prior to using them: Does this work for this story? Heck, I do believe I’ve even used “ain’t” in a narration before. It was a close first-person narration with the narrator being from the Deep South.

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