During the summer, I always spend some time working on what I’m going to be teaching during the coming school year. A few weeks ago, I read an article discussing contractions in academic writing, and how in school, the author had been taught not to ever use contractions in writing. Then, in the comments, quite a few others commented about having learned the same thing. Apparently, using contractions is too informal.
As an English teacher, this is something that I’ve never taught my students nor did I ever learn it, but apparently it’s out there. This is one of those rules that is meant to be broken.
I even read an early draft of a friend’s novel a few years ago, and one of her characters never used contractions. I loved the story, but this character drove me nuts. He sounded like a snooty transplant from 200 years ago, formal and awkwardly stilted. It took a few chapters to figure out why his dialogue sounded off, and I finally realized it was because he never used contractions.
What is a contraction?
A contraction is a combination of two words into one with an apostrophe replacing the missing letters. You have to remember to use the apostrophe otherwise you have a different word. For example, you could have “we’re/were,” or “its/it’s” and the meaning will change depending on your apostrophe use.
it is = it’s
I have = I’ve
I would = I would’ve
He is/has = he’s
we have = we’ve
could not = couldn’t
would not = wouldn’t
are not = aren’t
will not = won’t
This is far from a comprehensive list, but you get the idea. You can find a full list here, and it’s got some funny ones like ‘ow’s’at for “how is that” and even o’clock for “of the clock” which I never knew.
You can use contractions both in dialogue and in narration. If you want to establish a more formal tone or character, cut down on your use of contractions. Cutting contractions in dialogue can also make a character sound either more intelligent or snooty.
If you want to establish a more personal or familiar tone, add in contractions.
Use Contractions to Develop Character
Every time I write a post on writing, I browse books by my favorite authors to see how they apply whatever concept I’m writing about. Interestingly, John Green doesn’t use many contractions in his writing, either in dialogue or exposition, but if you dig a little bit deeper, he chooses strong verbs and great words that don’t “contract.” And his characters tend to be bright and articulate.
J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, uses contractions but their use depends on the character who’s speaking.
Here is an example from The Chamber of Secrets. In this bit of dialogue, Dumbledore is explaining to Filch that he can cure his cat, Mrs. Norris, who has been petrified. See if you can figure out which is the original version that J.K. Rowling wrote.
Example #1 with contractions
“‘We’ll be able to cure her, Argus,’ said Dumbledore patiently. ‘Professor Sprout recently managed to procure some Mandrakes. As soon as they’ve reached their full size, I’ll have a potion made that’ll revive Mrs. Norris” (144).
Example #2 without contractions
“‘We will be able to cure her, Argus,’ said Dumbledore patiently. ‘Professor Sprout recently managed to procure some Mandrakes. As soon as they have reached their full size, I will have a potion made that will revive Mrs. Norris” (144).
If you chose example #2, the one without contractions, you are correct. Dumbledore is an elderly wizard, the head of the school, and highly educated and respected. It makes sense that he doesn’t use contractions. This small choice helps to establish his character as a more formal, respected character in the story.
The three kids in the story, Harry, Ron, and Hermione, use contractions all the time.
Read through some of your favorite novels to see how the authors use contractions in their writing. This is one of those small tweaks that can make a difference in both the tone and style of your writing as well as your character development.
Put it in Action
1) Read through a scene or piece of dialogue you’ve written.
2) Do you use contractions? Try removing or adding some to change the tone of the story or to develop the character.
3) Which version do you prefer?