When It’s Okay to Use Contractions (and When It Is Not)

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“Do or do not. There is no try.”

Wouldn’t it have sounded weird if Yoda said “don’t” instead of “do not” when scolding Luke for even considering the possibility of giving up? This was a teaching moment, also flagged by the fact that he didn’t say it backwards for the sake of clarity. He needed to make sure Luke not only heard him, but also that he listened.

Contractions are a way to speed up sentences, both spoken and written. As time passes, it becomes much more common to see contractions seep into different forms of writing that used to shun them, like textbooks.

Because of this, it can be difficult to figure out when it’s acceptable to use contractions in your writing and when to leave them out. We have a guide that might help you figure out when it’s okay—and when it is not.

Professional Emails and Letters: Not Okay 

Some will argue whether or not you should use contractions in professional emails depends on your discipline or whom you’re writing to. Regardless of the situation, if you’re writing to your boss, sending out a query letter or emailing a co-worker, every professional on the receiving end of your message technically deserves the same “treatment” when addressed in writing.

Your safest bet is to stay away from contractions. Unless you’re just emailing pictures to your mom or checking in on your grandma, there’s no reason you shouldn’t keep your emails clean and free of unwanted apostrophes.

Creative Writing: Okay

In most of your creative writing, you’re going to encounter situations where dialogue makes up most of a scene. After all, this is how real life works: once a conversation starts, everything else in the room tends to fade out. Similarly, when writing dialogue, it’s important to keep it as realistic as possible. You don’t walk up to your friend and ask, “Hey, how is it going?” You shorten it. In most dialects, it’s natural.

Dialogue isn’t the only place in creative writing where contractions are allowed. If your prose is informal enough, your reader won’t be alarmed if contractions are a consistent part of the work.

Academic Writing: Not Okay

Contractions are a big N-O in most academic writing guidelines. When explaining a specific concept through this kind of formal writing, it’s important to come across as clearly and intellectually as possible. That often means going back and making sure you spell out your will nots and there ares. Even if it looks a little funny at first.

It’s easy to slip back into old habits. Nobody spells out their contractions on social media or text messages (if you even write full sentences at all). Use your “Find” function to check for any you might have missed. 

Articles and Blog Posts: Okay

Have you been counting the number of contractions in this post? It’s okay to use them in situations like this. People don’t generally come here expecting content to be all formal, all the time. Blog posts are especially green-lighted where contractions are concerned: blogs are meant to informally address an audience. Contractions are usually a go.

This might not be the case for professional websites or all online publications—always look at a site’s content before submitting a story or pitch to see if they follow any consistent rules regarding contractions. If you can’t find any patterns, it never hurts to ask.

Resumes and Cover Letters: Not Okay

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but a friendly (sorry, formal) reminder can’t hurt. Professionals in your field, future bosses, extremely important people potentially have access to your resume and cover letter as soon as you lay it in the hands of a company’s human resources department. Treat it like the president will see it, if that’s what it takes for you to remember to keep contractions out.

In a nutshell, use contractions in less informal writing circumstances, such as your blog, an article for a magazine or your own creative pieces. Avoid contractions in more formal settings, especially when writing to potential employers or potential business partners.

If you are going to use contractions, though, use them consistently throughout a single document. Don’t use “can’t” in one paragraph and spell out “cannot” in the next. As with any grammar or style rule, pick one method and stick with it. Credibility often relies on your ability to maintain consistency throughout your writing.

Do or don’t: it doesn’t have to be a guessing game.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.

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