What Are Contractions?

Contractions commonly used in English

Derek Abella, ThoughtCo

A contraction is a word or phrase that has been shortened by dropping one or more letters. In writing, an apostrophe is used to indicate the place of the missing letters. Contractions are commonly used in speech (or written dialogue), informal forms of writing, and where space is at a premium, such as in advertising.

In very formal writing, such as academic papers, grant proposals, or other works that need to appear professional, you may not want to use contractions at all.

Why Do We Use Contractions?

We rely on contractions all the time in normal conversation. When people speak to each other, there is typically an expectation that they will use contractions (can't, won't, shouldn't) whenever they can, as doing so saves time.

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 together. This apostrophe is also known as the contractive apostrophe.

Some people, including 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. You can contract proper nouns to mean is or has, such as in the sentence "Shelly's coming with us," or "Jeff's bought a new computer." Watch out for the homonyms who's and whose; the contraction is "who is" or "who has," and the whole word is possessive, as in "Whose car is that?" And of course, if you're visiting the South, you'll likely hear the colloquial "y'all" for "you all."

Negative Contractions and Verb Contractions

Contractions are often made with auxiliary, or helping, verbs, such as to be, do, have, and can. We can say "it isn't raining" or "it's not raining." But we cannot say "it'sn't raining." In negative clauses, we have a choice between using 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 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? or did we not?

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 their context. For instance, "Sam's finished his term paper" implies completion in the past (Sam has finished), while "Sam's tired" 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, make sure you're not putting an apostrophe plus s on something that should actually be plural: i.e., 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 more than 70 contractions in English.

aren't are not
can't cannot
couldn't could not
could've could have
didn't did not
doesn't does not

do not

e'er ever
hadn't had not
hasn't has not
haven't have not
he'd he had; he would
he'll he will; he shall
he's he is; he has
I'd I had; I would
I'll I will; I shall
I'm I am
I've I have
isn't is not
it'd it would
it'll it shall; it will
it's it is; it has
let's let us
ma'am madam
mightn't might not
might've might have
mustn't must not
must've must have
'n' and
needn't need not
ne'er never
o'er over
ol' old
oughtn't ought not
shan't shall not
she'd she had; she would
she'll she will; she shall
she's she is; she has
shouldn't should not
should've should have
that'd that would
that's that is; that has
there'd there had; there would
there'll there shall; there will
there's there has; there is
they'd they had; they would
they'll they will; they shall
they're they are
they've they have
'twas it was
wasn't was not
we'd we had; we would
we'll we will
we're we are
we've we have
weren't were not
what'll what will; what shall
what're what are
what's what is; what has; what does
what've what have
where'd where did
where's where is; where has
who'd who had; who would
who'll who will; who shall
who's who is; who has
who've who have
why'd why did
won't will not
wouldn't would not
would've would have
you'd you had; you would
you'll you will; you shall
you're you are
you've you have
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Contractions?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Are Contractions? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Contractions?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/contractions-commonly-used-informal-english-1692651 (accessed June 2, 2023).