Contractions in Writing: When To Use and When To Avoid These Conversational Words

The article Contractions in Writing: When To Use and When To Avoid These Conversational Words appeared first on The Write Practice.

If you’ve ever written an essay or research paper, you’ve probably been told not to use contractions. However, what about contractions in writing? When you’re writing a book, can you use them? Does this differ in academic writing and scholarly writing?

contractions in writing

Contractions are a type of informal writing, and yet, they sound far more natural in conversations or narrative driving a fiction book.

But first, what are contractions? Is there a contractions list?

Knowing how to use contractions is an important grammar rule. And when you know how to use them properly—and when to ignore them—you’ll probably write a better story.

What Are Contractions? Contractions Definition

A contraction is the shortened form of a word. It combines two words—almost always a noun with a verb—linked with an apostrophe into one, shortened word.

Examples of contractions include it’s, wasn’t, haven’t, and hundreds more (see our contractions list below).

We use contractions every day, usually without noticing them. Why? Because contractions are simple, easier to pronounce, and part of our vernacular.

However, if you think contractions are a modern invention, proof that the English language is going to the dogs, you couldn’t be more wrong.

A Brief History of Contractions

Contractions have been around for a very long time—in English, as far back as the creation of the language itself, when the Angles and Saxons invaded the British Isles and mixed the local Celtic dialects with their Germanic languages (the Germans love contractions and compound words).

Since then, the list of contractions continued to expand, usually brought by invaders or imported during cultural movements. For a full history of contractions, read this excellent article.

Should Contractions Be Used in Writing?

You might think contractions can’t be used in the canons of literature, but this conversational approach appears in literary masterpieces, from Beowulf to Moby Dick to Great Expectations to Ulysses to modern bestsellers and more (see examples below).

Even the Chicago Manual of Style recommends the use of contractions in writing, saying, “Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions” (5.103).

Most English teachers say contractions should never be used in writing, at least not in formal writing (see here, here, and here).

However, the reality is that contractions have been used in English writing for over 1,400 years. And yes, they’re even used in scholarly articles (it’s about 2,750,000 times, can’t about 3,290,000 times, don’t about 4,270,000 times).

What are some of the most common contractions? I’m glad you asked:

Top 50 Contractions List

Unsure about which contractions you’re using or should be using or what they mean? To help your narrative carry a conversational tone, you can use the list of commonly used contractions below, complete with the full phrase, and an example sentence.

Contraction Full Phrase Example Sentence
I’m I am I’m going to the store.
I’ll I will I’ll get bread.
You’re You are You’re crazy to go to the store when it’s snowing.
You’ll You will You’ll regret it if the roads close.
He’s He is He’s gone. Good luck!
She’s She is She’s going to the store for bread too.
It’s It is It’s snowing and there is only one loaf of bread left.
We’re We are We’re going to starve.
We’ll We will We’ll have to share.
They’re They are Oh no! They’re closing the roads.
They’ll They will They’ll be closed until tomorrow.
That’s That is That’s a problem since we’re stuck at the store.
Who’s Who is Who’s going to help us get home?
What’s What is What’s your name?
When’s When is When’s the last time you’ve gotten stuck in a store all night?
Where’s Where is Where’s that bread?
Why’s Why is Why’s this happening to us?
How’s How is How’s the cold floor feeling?
Here’s Here is Here’s my coat in case your cold?
There’s There is There’s a pack of cards.
Aren’t Are not Aren’t you going to play cards with me?
Can’t Can not I can’t believe you won again.
Couldn’t Could not Couldn’t you at least let me win once?
Shouldn’t Should not Shouldn’t the roads be open soon?
Wouldn’t Would not I wouldn’t have guessed getting stuck at a store in a blizzard could be fun.
Hasn’t Has not Yes, this hasn’t been as bad as I feared, to be honest.
Haven’t Have not I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.
Don’t Do not Don’t get all sappy on me now.
Wasn’t Was not I wasn’t.
Weren’t Were not Weren’t you?
He’d He had He’d thought they were having fun, but now he wasn’t sure.
She’d She had She’d thought they were having fun, but she worried about getting his hopes up.
It’d It would It’d be nice if they opened the roads soon.
We’d We would We’d actually be able to get some sleep tonight.
They’d They would They’d text us if they were open.
Who’d Who would Who’d have thought it would take this long?
What’d What did What’d you do with that bread?
When’d When did When’d it get so cold in here?
Where’d Where did Where’d that draft come from?
Why’d Why did Why’d you share your coat if you were so cold?
How’d How did How’d you think I feel if you were cold and I was warm?
Let’s Let us Here, let’s share.
That’d That would That’d be nice actually.
I’d I would Hey, I’d like to maybe see you again after this is all over.
You’d You would I worry you’d be disappointed.
I’ve I have It’s up to you, but I’ve got tickets to the concert tomorrow night—or tonight now, I guess.
You’ve You have You’ve got tickets?
We’ve We have Fine, we’ve got a plan.
They’ve They have They’ve dozed off.
Isn’t Who have Isn’t this a surprise.

3 Word Contractions List

The following three-word-contractions aren’t as common (at least in writing), but they are awesome:

  • He’d’ve = He would have
  • They’d’ve = They would have
  • You’d’ve = You would have
  • We’d’ve = We would have
  • I’d’ve = I would have
  • She’d’ve = She would have
  • Might not have = Mightn’t’ve
  • Should not have = Shouldn’t’ve

While experts often discourage the use of contractions in formal communication, you’ll probably find contractions of verb phrases used in business or casual conversations—or scenes like these in books—since contractions make for an easier, more casual tone.

Sentences like these sound more natural, and therefore more personal. Like everyday speech.

Let’s look at some examples of contractions in literature.

Examples of Contractions Used in Classic Literature

Contractions can be frequently found in literature, both modern and classic.

Here’s a list of contractions we found in the literary canon.

Please note that while some say contractions should only be used in dialogue, these examples of contractions were found both in dialogue and normal prose.

From Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter Three:

It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time.

From the fourth paragraph of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:

I earnestly expressed my hope that he wouldn’t, and held tighter to the tombstone on which he had put me; partly, to keep myself upon it; partly, to keep myself from crying.

From Benjamin Franklin’s memoir, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

He reply’d,* that if I made that kind offer for Christ’s sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, “Don’t let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ’s sake, but for your sake.”

From The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

It’s absurd to talk of the ignorance of youth.

Ulysses by James Joyce:

Twelve. I’m thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.

*Anyone know what this is a contraction of, if it is a contraction at all? I found this by chance and am not familiar with it.

Examples of Contractions in Contemporary Literature

Contemporary literature all but throws out the so-called “rule” not to use contractions in writing. Here are several examples of the way many bestselling and prize-winning authors use contractions.

The first two sentences of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods:

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-[mess]-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.

From the first chapter of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss:

They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote had never interjected anything of his own before. Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so.

From Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall:

There’s no accounting, in retrospect, for this lapse in the Harris tradition.

From The Dinner by Herman Koch**:

Unhappiness can’t stand silence—especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.

From the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon:

Over the years I’d surrendered many vices, among them whiskey, cigarettes, and the various non-Newtonian drugs…

**This is an English translation from the original Dutch, but since Dutch is a Germanic language, I think it’s safe to assume the original uses contractions.

Should YOU Use Contractions In Your Writing?

If you’re like me, you learned not to use contractions in school. In fact, I spoke with a friend who was trained as an elementary school English teacher, and she was taught to actively discourage students from writing with contractions.

Personally, I think the no contractions rule is outdated and actually ignorant of the historical foundations of the English language (again, contractions were in Beowulf, people!).

I will say that if you’re writing formal essays in high school, college, and grad school, you should probably avoid contractions, if only so you don’t ruin your grade.

However, if you’re writing something creative, and especially if you’re writing dialogue, you need to be using contractions.

Real people use them, and so should you.

More Contractions Resources

How about you? Do you think contractions should be used in writing? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.


To get a sense of how weird it is to not use contractions, write a scene using the following prompt without using a single contraction.

Prompt: A couple is on their first date at a trendy restaurant. One is allergic to shellfish, the other can’t stand brussel sprouts.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your contraction-less practice in the practice box below. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Good luck!

Enter your practice here:

The article Contractions in Writing: When To Use and When To Avoid These Conversational Words appeared first on The Write Practice. The Write Practice – The Online Writing Workbook

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Author: Joe Bunting