What Are Contractions in English?

Examples of double contractions in English.
Examples of double contractions in English.

In grammar and morphology, a contraction is a shortened form of a word or group of words, with the missing letters usually marked by an apostrophe.

Contractions are commonly used in speech and in colloquial forms of writing.

Words containing two contractional clitics marked with apostrophes (such as shouldn't've) are called double contractions. Double contractions are rarely seen in contemporary writing.

From the Latin, "to draw together, make a contract"

Examples and Observations

  • 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."
    (William Zinsser, On Writing Well. HarperCollins, 2006)
  • "It's innocence when it charms us, ignorance when it doesn't."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "So there we all were so ugly we couldn't bear to look at one another. So then what did we do? Well, I'll tell you what we did. . . . [W]e thought we'd rather be invisible than go on being as ugly as all that. And why? Because we'd like it better."
    (C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952)
  • "I have a friend who is a juggler. If I'm at his house, I don't like to take food from him, if it's in threes. He has three apples left, I guess I can't have one. I wouldn't want to screw up his practice routine."
    (Mitch Hedberg)
  • "You'll look, and there she'll stand. The sunshine won't look gold any more, or the roses pink, or the sky blue, because she'll be the pinkest, bluest, goldest thing of all. You'll be yelling yourself hoarse with the jealousy of her."
    (Gene Stratton-Porter, Freckles, 1904)
  • "I liked loners. The downside, of course, was that every serial killer who'd ever lived had also been a loner. Well, you can't have everything. People just tend to drive you crazy after a while. That's why penthouses, nunneries, sailboats, islands, and jail cells do such a booming business. And trailers."
    (Kinky Friedman, Armadillos and Old Lace, 1994)
  • "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock* in the morning, day after day."
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    * "O'clock" is short for "of the clock."
  • Dialectal Contractions
    - "Don't you set down on the steps.
    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
    Don't you fall now--
    For I'se still goin', honey,
    I'se still climbin',
    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair."
    (Langston Hughes, "Mother to Son")

    - "Y'all been looking at me fuh eight years now, but look lak some uh y'all been lookin' on me wid unseein' eye. When Ah speak tuh you from dis pulpit, day ain't me talkin', dat's de voice uh God speakin' thru me."
    (Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine, 1934)
  • Contracted Forms
    "[I]n English certain words have contracted ('shortened') forms. The word will can occur either as will in sentences such as They will go, or in contracted form, spelled 'll, in sentences such as They'll go. The form 'll is a bound morpheme in that it cannot occur as an independent word and must be attached to the preceding word or phrase (as in they'll or The birds who flew away'll return soon, respectively). Other contractions in English include 's (the contracted form of is, as in The old car's not running anymore), 've (the contracted form of have, as in They've gone jogging), 'd (the contracted form of would, as in I'd like to be rich), and several other contracted forms of auxiliary verbs. These contracted forms are all bound morphemes in the same sense as 'll."
    (Adrian Akmajian et al., Linguistics: an Introduction to Language and Communication, 5th ed. MIT Press, 2001)
  • Verbs That Don't Contract
    "There are two modals that do not form contractions with not. May does not contract . . .. Shan't exists as a contraction of shall not only in British English and is restricted largely to use with a first person pronoun."
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008)
  • Ambiguous Contractions
    "The 'd and 's contractions each have two meanings: 'd can represent either had or would, and 's can represent either is or has. To human readers, the intended meaning is usually clear from the context. If you are using machine-translation software, or if you are concerned about this ambiguity for other reasons, then use 'd only to represent would, and use 's only to represent is. Those meanings are the most common in technical communication."
    (John R. Kohl, The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market. SAS Institute, 2008)
  • Double and Multiple Contractions
    "In English, at least, contractions typically don't pile up on each other. So she is not can be contracted to either she isn't or she's not, but not to *she'sn't. And of them can be contracted to either o'them or of'em, but not to *o'em. The reason may often be the relative unpronounceability of a double contraction, in which unusual sequences of vowels or consonants are brought together."
    (James R. Hurford, Grammar: A Student's Guide. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994)

    - "I'd've talked/I'd'a talked
    At first glance, the conditional perfect appears to be every bit as much of a high registered tense as the future perfect, yet multiple contractions--including the second of these in which have is reduced to a schwa--are highly frequent in colloquial speech, especially in northern/northeastern lects of American English and in both the if-clause and the result clause . . ., thus: [If] I'd'a seen him in time I'd'a warned him off [cf. the more standard If I had seen him in time I would have warned him off; note that I'd'a seen him is a contraction of the pleonastic If I would have seen him, itself a stigmatized usage."
    ( Richard V. Teschner and Eston E. Evans, Analyzing the Grammar of English, 3rd. ed. Georgetown Univ. Press, 2007)

    - "You can go to meetin' to-night, if you're a mind to--I sha'n't go; I ain't got strength 'nough--an' 'twouldn't hurt you none to hang back a little after meetin', and kind of edge round his way. 'Twouldn't take more'n a look."
    (Mary Wilkins Freeman, "Louisa," 1890)
  • The Lighter Side of Contractions
    "A pregnant woman went into labor and began to yell, 'Couldn't! Wouldn't! Shouldn't! Didn't! Can't!'
    "She was having contractions."
    (Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, February 3, 2007)

    "Contractions are the closest thing to hip talk I can use without just sounding silly."
    (Paula Poundstone, There's Nothing in This Book That I Meant to Say. Three Rivers Press, 2006)


Pronunciation: kun-TRAK-shun