Usage: Contractions

Posted on Thu 16 Sep 2010 @ 8.16am UTC

Contractions can make your English more natural and authentic-sounding, yet they are one of the hardest things in the English language to do well.

IN SCHOOL and in much of our academic lives, we are told to avoid using contractions. The ‘Standard G.I. Joe Reason’ is that contractions are informal and therefore unseemly for academic writing. In the broadest sense, that advice is true enough.

Big Blue Apostrophe, for Tod (Big Blue Comma for everyone else)Another reason we’re given is that contractions make for sloppy, substandard writing and don’t lend to good writing habits. This you might like to consider something of a sweeping generalisation.

Here’s another reason you probably haven’t heard of before — contractions are hard to do well. Broadly speaking, non-native speakers are less able to carry the rhythm that comes from using contractions that a native speaker is able to do.

A big difficulty the average Asian speaker has with English contractions is the way English is taught in this part of the world. For most Asians, English is chiefly taught as a written language. The more oral tradition of teaching English is really a European phenomenon.

Some clever dicks realise early on in their English studies that using contractions is one trick to help them disguise non-native-sounding quality in speaking or writing.

What most people are most fallen on is overuse, placement problems, rhythm, common sense, and a sense of proportion. This is most true for people whose own first languages contain little or no contractions — and that means practically all non-European languages.


Overuse is by far the biggest problem seen in most Asian speakers if and whenever they do use contractions. It’s one extreme of absolute phobia to the other extreme of reckless abandon.

This’ll be the day that I die. (Correct: special effect)

I should’ve been the best man. (Correct: speech)

Wanting to ‘sound English’ leads to an overpowering need to disguise nearly any foreign-sounding quality in the writing or speaking. So contractions are deliberately worked into all sorts of places that don’t normally exist in authentic English.

The paper’ll be sent to you. (Wrong)

You mayn’t want to do that. (Wrong in writing)

He shouldn’t’ve done that. (Wrong in writing, correct in speech)

I shan’t be going home this early. (Wrong in writing, correct in speech)

Placement problems

As you can see, overuse often leads to placement problems. Not to put too fine a point on things, most Asian learners don’t have regular enough, consistent enough, habitual enough or even enough exposure to authentic English speech in the home or workplace. The result? Some contractions become wildly comical to the native ear or eye.

Rhythm problems

Just because two or more words could be jigged together into a contraction (doesn’t that sound like a contradiction in terms?) doesn’t make it right. It isn’t always the way English speakers would do it.

The overall rhythm of the sentence determines when and how the contractions occur. This is easy enough for native speakers, mainly because that’s the way they speak every day anyway, of course.

Trouble is, the Asian style of teaching English typically puts heavy focus on the writing aspect. This one-sided approach to teaching and learning is compounded by the fact that Asian learners mostly take to English only in a rather formalised setting, being usually the classroom or workplace. Most simply revert to using their own languages in non-work or non-class situations, or in the home. These factors (heavy focus on writing, formalised setting for teaching/learning) together make it doubly hard for the learner to learner and use contractions in any near-authentic manner. The result is decidedly very rough around the edges.

In other words, the longer your exposure to learning a language through the written mode, the less rhythmic is your speaking and writing of that language. The use (and misuse) of contractions just adds an extra layer of hardship for the Asian speaker or writer as much as an extra layer of side-splitting comical entertainment for the native English speaker.

Common sense and a sense of proportion

We have to take a detour here. Contractions take place in speech. Dictation is virtually the only time when speech coincides with learning the language.

Looking squarely at the execution aspect of the teaching of English, dictation in Hong Kong (and probably also in China, Japan and Korea) is a singularly one-way process. Teacher speaks — or more accurately, recites some text, mostly word for word, at a slow pace, with many pauses. Students transcribe (make an exact copy of) the spoken words as they hear them with a view to high accuracy. The worst part is scoring the dictation. Students who can transcribe with high accuracy get high marks.

That creates an effect what lawyers call headcounting: to see how many bits of spoken text are caught right. This kind of exercise is lauded by education authorities as the way to train up kids (and adults) to understand English. It doesn’t work in real life. It works even less the mechanistic way it’s done.

What this style of dictation does in fact do is it trains kids to catch words accurately for the sake of getting high marks. Dictation is now reduced to a word-spotting exercise. It’s like train spotting: you can spot a lot of trains, but it’s does jack all to help you know how to operate one.

Educators are mostly oblivious to this fact. Robotic dictation does nothing to help people understand English or indeed any other language. The way the words are recited (and also the material usually used) are often too far removed from anything close to authentic speaking. Dictation scoring simply adds to the problem.

Language schools in Europe tried it before and they found it to be a complete time waster. Logically on paper at least, dictation scoring is billed as an incentive in the learning process. All the incentive did was to incentivise students getting high scores and little much else. In Europe, where the need to speak two or more other languages is an everyday reality, it’s back to the old-fashioned way of not scoring dictation.

The way to get anyone to quickly get to grips with using a language is to dictate as close as practicable to normal speaking to the extent possible for the abilities of the learners. In other words, the earlier and more you hear spoken words that most resemble regular speech, the quicker and deeper you absorb and understand the language. This is what is meant by common sense.

As to a sense of proportion, I ask you, how will scoring at the end of dictation help the understanding of the language in any way? If high scores mean high understanding, then there’s no debate. But scoring doesn’t help the learner hit language paydirt.

Scores draw people’s attention by distracting them from the primary purpose of dictation: to let learners see for themselves where and how they are getting things right or wrong or indifferent. In other words, dictation is a way to get the learner recognise own weaknesses. This is what is meant by a sense of proportion.

Inability to recognise strengths and weaknesses leads to inflated egos (and not just in language learning!). Here in Hong Kong at least, that’s why all levels of students have mostly no sense of proportion of their knowledge or studies. Law professors are especially cognisant of this defect: many law students handle the material brilliantly, many law graduates come out in the process, but good lawyers who can apply their knowledge in real life are so few and far between.

Doing proper dictation in two easy steps

How are things done in my days? I went to one of the top five boarding schools in England (‘public schools’ in British parlance). Some say it’s one of the top two — I’m flattered — based on the fact that half the British prime ministers were old boys from my school. The other half came from a rival school about 60 miles away.

English, French and Latin were compulsory school subjects, in addition to Maths and History — five examinable subjects in all. Geography, Politics, Economics, German or Spanish, and Botany or Zoology were ‘expected’ to be taken (meaning they had to be taken) but weren’t examinable. I also did Secretarial Studies because of the girls, for obvious reasons.

Step 1. Dictation started off slowly, clearly enunciated, given in short blocs or word for word as appropriate. When done, the boys check their work against a full text. Sometimes we check on our own or share that among ourselves. No scoring. (We only score with the chicks, mate.) Finish and move on. Over the long haul, we could see exactly where we’ve fallen on in those languages. There are no scores to mess our minds with.

Step 2. Very soon we cranked up the speed. Schoolmaster was reciting faster and in longer and longer blocs of text. After two school terms, the default speed for dictation was just a bit faster than half the normal speaking speed.

By dictating in blocs, we were forced to anticipate the next words to come. Anticipating causes us to concentrate on understanding what we were hearing. To understand, we made judgments on the direction of the words to come by reference to the rhythm of the text we heard. Anticipation and understanding then works in a circular pattern.

The more observant among you will notice this method of doing things is plain bad news for crammers (tutorial schools) and private tutors. Crammers are in the ‘business’ of education, and to do dictation this way seriously cuts down on their earning power. Their vested interest is to prolong the learning process with a view to making profits. It’s a very cynical view but also highly accurate.

I have literally seen colleagues whose children go through endless rounds of extra, outside tuition year after year — with no noticeable improvement to what they know. I make no representations and speak only on their English-language studies, but I’m pretty sure it’s roughly the same story for their other subjects.

Can’t if you can’t

Let’s get back to contractions.

You can’t handle contractions well if you can’t speak the language with some degree of regularity in your everyday life.

You can’t speak the language with some degree of regularity unless you hear it in spoken form with some degree of regularity.

You can’t hear it regular-like unless you hear it spoken in a form and frame close enough to the real thing.

You can’t hear it close enough to the real thing if all you’re hearing is in an artificial way like robotspeak as already mentioned.

And if you can’t hear it like the real thing most of the time, you can’t catch the rhythm that helps you to understand in order to anticipate the next words in order to help understand the overall direction of the spoken words in order to understand what went before.

That’s why voice menus on the phone are so hard to understand even for native speakers. You need rhythm and contractions to understand a language that contains multisyllable words such as English. Chinese and Korean are languages with monosyllable words, so voice menus don’t faze those people.

Truth is, no one ever speaks without contractions. It’s a fact of all European languages. Everyone uses contractions. Movie scriptwriters have learnt long ago that to make a character sound artificial or robotlike or in a haze, they give it lines with no contractions. Ever notice how Commander Data in Star Trek speaks? There you go. The only (famous) exception is Terminator, which must have been one helluva advanced robot because of his “I’ll be back” line.

Engage common sense, please

When you’re speaking or writing informally or even casually, it’s okay to use contractions. Don’t put people ill at ease. There’s no hard and fast rule — use your judgment and use your initiative. Accommodate others as much as yourself. Be significantly close to speech but not substantially so. After all, writing is writing. Writing shouldn’t be too much like speaking, unless it’s for special effect.

Having said that, you can’t go the other extreme and ban contractions. Total absence of contractions even in informal writing or speaking makes you appear aloof, overbearing and a little sneaky. Capito?

Formal writing or speaking operate under different rules, but even contractions have their place there. But then, most real rules or conventions of real English are inoperable anyway when it comes to anything formal.

Let’s cut to the chase and say contractions are not standard operating procedure for formal speaking or writing. The rider here is the apostrophe s.

Apostrophe s (the possessive) is correct for proper names and some nouns that represent things capable of possessing actions or entities.

The factory’s doors are shut. (Wrong in writing or speaking)

The factory doors are shut. (Correct)

I have the book of John. (Wrong in writing or speaking)

I have John’s book. (Correct)

This is John’s and Mary’s group assignment. (Wrong)

This is John and Mary’s group assignment. (Correct)

Like all inanimate objects, a factory is (language-wise) incapable of possessing things. Only animate objects (like people, animal) can possess. It’s a rule of thumb and there are exceptions.

Resources, if you must

LEOS recommends Purdue University’s guide on using the apostrophe because it works as a starting point for more complex usage. The link is

Another one recommended is at Hubpages:

For those who want study materials, try Pete’s PowerPoint Presentation Station‘s stuff on contractions at

(LEOS is unaffiliated with any of those organisations or websites.)

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I don’t know why you’re telling us this. Teachers say contractions are wrong and we must write out in full. You’re not a teacher, so who’s to say you’re right.

Spot on. I’m not a teacher and will never be one in all likelihood, thankfully. Imagine having to teach people like you. (Shudders.)

Teachers who churn out drivel like that are irresponsible and reckless beyond belief. Students to take on board the same require an effort of will to even stand next to them in a crowded lift (BrE) / escalator (AmE).

Contractions aren’t wrong. It’s a fact of life in the English language. Contractions are sometimes highly important to give accurate meaning and clarity. Don’t could not be confused with anything — whereas do not could be mistyped or misread as do now, as the diamond business and financial services sector know only to their chagrin. In some jobs (and journalism readily comes to mind), you could even lose your job for not using contractions.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, contractions aren’t hard to use in absolute terms. What is relatively hard is using them in the right places at the right time in the right context. That’s why listening to authentic English speech is important.

Nitwits like you yourselves clearly are clueless because you can’t sort out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to advice because you choose only to listen to advice that pleases you. You have no need for contractions, and contractions have none of you.

Most people switch off whenever they hear robots speak. Go away, dead slow children, go away.

Newscasters on the BBC, CNN, etc, etc don’t use contractions. What gives?

You’re not paying enough attention. Your mind is altering what you hear. All of them use contractions. They just don’t use them so frequently, so you don’t notice. Try harder, people, prick up your ears.

Protip: If you really, really want to know what ‘smart casual’ English sounds like, try watching or listening to a European TV channel that also carry an English-language service, such as France24 (“France Vignt-Quatre”) or Deutche-Welle (“German Wave”).

Protip: You’re supposed to ‘expose’ yourself to a wide variety and style of English-language writing and speaking. Locking yourself into a one or two or even half a dozen different types ain’t gonna do the trick, dumbferk.

So you’re saying we could use contractions as a way to disguise our chinky/wapanese/whatever-sounding English, are you?

I knew you’d ask that. It’s up to you. Contractions are usable for disguise purposes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Depends. A lot of other things go into sounding like a native English speaker — like actually growing up in a native English-speaking country, dimwit. In Hong Kong, even our expat children in our international schools growing up in an ostensibly native English-speaking home don’t actually sound quite that native — which becomes obvious to the native ear when they go back to their native countries.

How you use your words is the long and short of it, if you want to sound native. Not your accent, not your contractions, not your bleeding well whatnots. That’s exactly the point I’m trying to make here. Why is your Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa, Hindi, Maori, Ringalingdingdong, etc so native-sounding? It’s because of your ability to improvise according to natural speaking rhythm.

Stop projecting your silly-arsed psychological hangup about native or not native on the rest of us. Forget about this native business and you will surely arrive at your sacred bloody destination in no time. STOP WASTING TIME!

So when should we be using contractions?

Told you already, wimpwad. Read the above. Pay attention. Stop focusing on what to use, or you won’t notice what’s going on around you. There are no tricks or shortcuts in learning a language. Stop sneezing and phlegmming my arse/ass with silly-arsed questions like that! Want to use a contraction? Do it, faggot! See what happens. Take a risk. Learn to make mistakes.

Thanks but no thanks, douchebag. I think I’ll trust my teacher and textbooks instead. I’m not convinced of your English because you’re not English/American/Canadian/Kiwi/Caucasian/white. How could you possibly be that good in English?

There’s this story about a man who was stranded on a desert island and — but that’s not the story. Your mother’s a crack whore. Your argument’s invalid. STFU and GTFO.


Images: Big Blue Apostrophe (or Big Blue Comma) by Dan Waber via Lagolalia | The Apostrophe Protection Society T-shirt design via

© Learn English or Starve, 2010. Updated 08 June 2013 (reformatting only).