What You Need to Know About Contractions

Contractions Are the Shortcuts of Grammar

Contraction can't
Melinda Podor/Moment/Getty Images

A contraction is a word or phrase that's (or that has) been shortened by dropping one or more letters. In writing, an apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters. Contractions are commonly used in speech and informal forms of writing because we like to take quite a few shortcuts in English.

Why Do We Use Contractions?

We rely on contractions all the time in normal conversations. As Ben Yagoda says in "The Sound on the Page," "In speech, there is an expectation that anyone who's not prissy or pretentious or is emphasizing a point will use [contractions] whenever possible."

Some people are under the impression that contractions should never appear in writing, but this belief is mistaken. The use of contractions is directly related to tone.

In informal writing (from text messages and blogs to memos and personal essays), we often rely on contractions to maintain a colloquial tone. In more formal writing assignments (such as academic reports or term papers), avoiding contractions is a way of establishing a more serious tone.

Before deciding whether to use contractions in a writing assignment, consider your audience and your purpose for writing.

The Contractive Apostrophe

In telescoped words and phrases (e.g., doesn't, there's, sou'wester), an apostrophe marks the spot where one or more letters have been omitted. It is not necessarily where the words have been joined.

The Oxford Style Manual points out that shan't (for shall not) "has only one apostrophe." A century ago it was spelled sha'n't.

But then again, anybody who uses the word shan't probably already knows this.

Some people, such as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, have been in favor of eliminating apostrophes entirely. Shaw called them "uncouth bacilli," though it's unlikely that Shaw's analogy to bacteria will help the apostrophe go away anytime soon.

Contracted Nouns and Pronouns

In casual conversation, contractions involving nouns are fairly common ("My dad'll be home soon"). In writing, however, they're much rarer than contractions with pronouns such as I'll, he'd, and she's

Negative Contractions and Verb Contractions

We can say "it isn't raining" or "it's not raining." But we cannot say "it'sn't raining." In negative clauses, we often have a choice between negative contractions like not (n't) and contracting the pronoun and verb (it's). But we can't do both.

Contracting 'Not'

The contracted form of not (n't) can be attached to finite forms of the helping verbs be, do, and have. However, amn't (mainly Scottish and Irish) is extremely rare unlike the unfairly disparaged ain't.

The n't form can also be attached to most of the modal auxiliaries such as can't, couldn't, mustn't, shouldn't, won't, and wouldn't. Yet, you won't hear many Americans saying mayn't or shan't, even those contractions are too formal.

Contractions in Tag Questions

A tag question is a short question added to the end of a declarative sentence, usually to make sure that something has been done or understood. For example, "It's a tag question, isn't it?"

Because of their colloquial nature, negative tags are commonly contracted: didn't we? haven't you? aren't they?

 This is much less formal than did not we?

Ambiguous Contractions

Most contractions ending in 'd and 's are ambiguous. The 'd can represent either had or would's can represent either has or is. All the same, the meaning of these contractions is usually clear from the context. For instance, "Sam's finished his term paper" implies the past tense Sam has finished while "Sam's dead" is in the present tense, meaning Sam is.

Multiple Contractions

They may look odd in print, but certain multiple contractions such as I'd've (or I'd'a) and wouldn't've are fairly common in speech. We like shortcuts, so it's easy to say something like, "If  I'd've told you the real reason, you probably wouldn't've come back with me." Quite often, we don't even notice it, the words just run together as we talk.

Under the category of rarities, there are a few double and even triple contracted nautical terms.

These include words like bo's'n (short for boatswain) and fo'c's'le (a variant of forecastle), words that landlubbers can probably live without.

Before you start recklessly sprinkling apostrophes everywhere, consider the stigma attached to the greengrocer's apostrophe.

Aphaeresis, Syncope, and Apocope

Another common type of linguistic shortening (or elision) is the omission of certain sounds or letters from an individual word.

In phonetics, elision at the beginning of a word (for instance, gator from alligator) is called aphaeresis. In the middle of a word (ma'am from madam), it is a syncope. When it appears at the end of a word (ad from advertisement), we call it an apocope.

Aphaeresis and apocope can occur together, as in flu — a clipped form of influenza.

Standard Contractions in English

In the following table, you'll find a list of 50 of the most frequently used contractions in English.

For some of these, it's a very common mistake to use a contraction when you really need to use a similar word. A perfect example is they're and their, which are homophones.

To determine whether the contraction is appropriate, ask yourself if it makes sense without the contraction: Does they are make sense? If not, then, you should probably be using the adjective their. Of course, if you're speaking about a place, then there is the correct word. Isn't English fun?

aren'tare not
couldn'tcould not
didn'tdid not
doesn'tdoes not
don'tdo not
hadn'thad not
hasn'thas not
haven'thave not
he'dhe had; he would
he'llhe will; he shall
he'she is; he has
I'dI had; I would
I'llI will; I shall
I'mI am
I'veI have
isn'tis not
it'sit is; it has
let'slet us
mightn'tmight not
mustn't must not
shan'tshall not
she'dshe had; she would
she'llshe will; she shall
she'sshe is; she has
shouldn'tshould not
that'sthat is; that has
there'sthere is; there has
they'dthey had; they would
they'llthey will; they shall
they'rethey are
they'vethey have
we'dwe had; we would
we'rewe are
we'vewe have
weren'twere not
what'llwhat will; what shall
what'rewhat are
what'swhat is; what has; what does
what'vewhat have
where'swhere is; where has
who'dwho had; who would
who'llwho will; who shall
who'swho is; who has
who'vewho have
won'twill not
wouldn'twould not
you'dyou had; you would
you'llyou will; you shall
you'reyou are
you'veyou have
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What You Need to Know About Contractions." ThoughtCo, Oct. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 27). What You Need to Know About Contractions. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651 Nordquist, Richard. "What You Need to Know About Contractions." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651 (accessed March 17, 2018).