It’s Acceptable to Use (Some) Contractions

By Mark Nichol

Do you believe it’s acceptable to use contractions in formal writing, or is the elision of certain letters and their replacement by apostrophes something that shouldn’t appear in a respectable publication? What’re your thoughts?

Some contractions are considered more acceptable than others. The first two I included in the previous paragraph, and others, are often found in all but the most buttoned-up composition, but although ’re is sometimes appropriate, what’re is of dubious respectability. Some contractions are ubiquitous and usually acceptable, while others, for often obscure and arbitrary reasons, are considered substandard usage.

Here’s a guide to the relative respectability of various contractions:

’d: a contraction of did, had, and would, considered mildly informal.

’em: a highly informal contraction of them (“You really showed ’em”).

’er: a highly informal contraction of her, though often in reference to an inanimate object rather than a female (“Git ’er done”).

’im: a highly informal contraction of him (“I saw ’im standing there just a minute ago”).

’ll: frequently used in place of will (“I’ll concede that much”).

n’t: widely employed to replace not, as in couldn’t, don’t, isn’t, shouldn’t, and won’t, though ain’t is considered acceptable only in colloquial or jocular usage, and shan’t is considered stilted.

’m: appears only in a contraction of “I am.”

’re: readily takes the place of are in “they are,” “we are,” and “you are” (and, less often, and less acceptably, “there are” or “what are”).

’s: used in contractions of phrases that include has and is, but use with does (“What’s he say about that?”) is considered highly informal; also is a contraction of us solely in the case of let’s.

’ve: acceptable for contraction of have, but double contractions such as I’d’ve (for “I would have”) are too informal for most contexts.

y’all: a dialect contraction of “you all,” widespread in the southern United States, to refer to one or more people, but too informal for most written content.

Any of these forms is appropriate for representing dialect, though in nonfiction it is usually interpreted as a demeaning caricature, and even in fiction it can become tiresome.

The illogic of inconsistent degrees of acceptability for contractions is demonstrated by the case of ain’t, which started out as a spelling variation, based on changing pronunciation, of an’t, itself an easier-to-pronounce form of amn’t (“am I not”). All three forms were long acceptable — an’t also stood in for “are not” and is the ancestor of aren’t — but while aren’t acquired respectability, and amn’t and an’t faded, the older ain’t was attacked as a vulgarity.

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3 Responses to “It’s Acceptable to Use (Some) Contractions”

  • Lyn

    I’ve run across “would of” instead of “would’ve” in some published novels. I hope they were just typos and not a soon-to-be-accepted writing trend.

  • Stephanie

    In copywriting, I often use contractions on purpose – even going back over copy to add contractions, because it sounds more personal, conversational and engaging. Without contractions it can seem rather stiff and robotic.

  • Levi Bookin

    I would not use such contractions in formal writing, and I do not like to encounter them in non-fiction reading.

    I was relieved to find that ‘n was not considered. That really gets up my nose.

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