Notes on Contractions in English

8 Things Every Writer Should Know About Clipped and Contracted Forms

Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo: How long have you been in this country?
Officer Ziva David: Why?
DiNozzo: Well, you've never heard of gypsy cabs, you don't use contractions. Assimilate already.
David: What are contraptions? . . . You are so prejudiced.
DiNozzo: I am not. I'm not! By the way, that's a contraction: I'm. You should try it sometime.
(Michael Weatherly and Cote de Pablo in "Designated Target." NCIS, 2007)

As DiNozzo suggests, Americans love to clip and contract, specially in everyday speech. A sure way of identifying bad guys, space aliens, and college professors (in the movies, at least) is by their reluctance to use contractions.

As writing becomes increasingly colloquial (think texting), contractions are showing up more often in print. And these days, only the stuffiest style guides outlaw contractions altogether. Most, like the AP Stylebook, simply warn against "excessive use" in more formal kinds of writing.

If for some reason you're troubled by this recent proliferation of contracted forms, be glad you didn't live in the 17th century. At that time, in the words of editor William Gifford, printers habitually "deformed" texts with "barbarous contractions," lopping off letters without much regard for consistency or sense.

To show there's some degree of logic to the ways that words are contracted in our own time, we've put together these notes.

  1. The Contractive Apostrophe
    In telescoped words and phrases (doesn't, there's, sou'wester), an apostrophe marks the spot where one or more letters have been omitted--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 anybody who uses the word shan't probably already knows this.

    If, like George Bernard Shaw, you're in favor of eliminating apostrophes--"uncouth bacilli" Shaw called them--see Should the Apostrophe Be Abolished?
  1. Contracted Nouns and Pronouns
    In casual conversation, contractions involving nouns are fairly common ("My dad'll be home soon"), but in writing they're much rarer than contractions with pronouns. (See A List of Standard Contractions in English.)
  2. Negative Contractions and Verb Contractions
    We can say "It isn't raining." Or "It's not raining." But we can't say *"It'sn't raining." In negative clauses, we often have a choice between contracting not (n't) and contracting the pronoun and verb (it's). But we can't do both. (See Negative Contractions.)
  3. Contracting Not
    The contracted form of not (n't) can be attached to finite forms of the helping verbs be, do, and have, though 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 (can't, couldn't, mustn't, shouldn't, won't, wouldn't), but you won't hear many Americans saying mayn't or (again) shan't.
  4. 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: "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?
  1. Ambiguous Contractions
    Most contractions ending in 'd and 's are ambiguous: 'd can represent either had or would, and 's can represent either has or is. All the same, the meaning of these contractions is usually clear from the context: "Sam's finished his term paper"; "Sam's dead."
  2. 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 (e.g., "If I'd've told you the real reason, you probably wouldn't've come back with me").

    Under the category of rarities, there are a few doubly and even triply contracted nautical terms, like bo's'n (short for boatswain) and fo'c's'le (a variant of forecastle)--words that landlubbers can probably live without. (And before you start recklessly sprinkling apostrophes everywhere, consider the stigma attached to the greengrocer's apostrophe.)
  1. 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), syncope; and at the end of a word (ad from advertisement), apocope. Aphaeresis and apocope can occur together, as in flu--a clipped form of influenza.

We'll end with a sensible tip from writer and editor William Zinsser: "Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like I'll and can't when they fit comfortably into what you're writing. . . . There's no rule against such informality--trust your ear and your instincts" (On Writing Well, 2006).