When You Should Use (and Avoid) Contractions

Some years ago I wrote a book called “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” In it I tried to get at some of the elements — other than content — that make strong writers’ prose distinctive and immediately identifiable: their stylistic fingerprint. To illustrate the general concept, I used the example of contractions. Consider two sentences: “I do not like green eggs and ham.” And “I don’t like green eggs and ham.” The meaning (obviously) is identical. But the sound, the voice, is quite different.

Most of us aren’t a Hemingway, or a Samuel Beckett, or a Dr. Seuss, and we shoot for a more or less transparent style — one that (as they say of good baseball umpires) is not noticed. And that extends to the use of contractions.

Of course, transparency means different things for different sorts of writing. In the depiction of speech, such as dialogue in fiction and scripts or quotations in journalism, readers expect a contraction to be used pretty much every time it’s an option because that is the way people talk. When I taught journalism, students would occasionally turn in an article with a line like, “‘I did not expect that to happen,’ Smith said.” I would comment: “Either Smith really said ‘didn’t’ or he speaks in an oddly stilted manner, in which case you should slip in a line such as, ‘Smith speaks like a character in a Damon Runyon story.’” 

Song lyrics also need to be conversational; consider the titles of classic American popular songs like “I Won’t Dance,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”

Damon Runyon, whom I mentioned a few sentences back, was an early 20th-century New York writer whose stories were the basis of the classic musical “Guys and Dolls.” The hallmarks of his nontransparent style was that the gangsters and other Broadway denizens who narrated and peopled his stories, (A) embraced the present tense and (B) eschewed contractions, as if they were in a Dr. Seuss book. The first sentence of the collection "Damon Runyon Omnibus" contains the line, “ordinarily I do not care for any part of lawyers.” The phrase “do not” appears more than 30 times in just the first two stories; the word “don’t” does not occur at all in the collection, which consists of three complete books.

Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, “True Grit,” is narrated by an old woman, Mattie Ross, remembering in the 1920s her adventures many years earlier. Both Mattie and the people she quotes usually avoid contractions. For example:

“She must have seen the dismay on my face for she added, ’It will be all right. Grandma Turner will not mind. She is used to doubling up. She will not even know you are there, sweet.’”

The characters in the Coen brothers’ 2010 movie version of the novel generally don’t use contractions, either. Ethan Coen said in an interview, “We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.” But as Mark Liberman demonstrated on Language Log, the Coens were told wrong. Liberman searched Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” (1876) and found  “58 instances of ‘won’t,’ and just one of ‘will not’ — in the author’s preface. … There are 223 instances of ‘don’t,’ against just one instance of ‘do not.’

Contractions are also the default in emails and other informal, conversational writing. In prose that’s directed at a general audience, the expectation is that they will be used judiciously. In his book “On Writing Well, William Zinsser counseled, “ … trust your ear and your instincts. … Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re [I see what you did there, Mr. Zinsser] writing.”

Even following that advice, there is a lot of room for leeway. For two books I have on my Kindle—“Unbroken," by the outstanding popular historian and journalist Laura Hillenbrandand “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian writing for a general audience—I calculated the percentage of times each writer used, and didn’t use the common contractions “wasn’t” and “didn’t.” Not surprisingly (considering the writers’ respective background and audience) Hillenbrand went with the contraction 87% of the time, Lepore less than 40. 

Contractions are frequently, usually, or almost always absent in four types of prose. 

1. The first is purely scholarly writing. A post on the American Psychological Association’s style blog instructs writers to  “avoid contractions.” Exceptions are direct quotations or when “making an off-the-cuff or informal remark within an otherwise formal paper.” 

2. You will generally also not find contractions in formal business writing — especially, as Erin Wright points out on her blog, in “instructions that can impact safety and security: ‘Do not’ heat this metal container in the microwave.’ (Instead of ‘Don’t heat this … ’) ‘Passengers ‘cannot’ leave their seats until the ride comes to a complete stop.’ (Instead of ‘Passengers can’t leave … ’)”

3. In legal writing,  a number of judges use contractions in rulings, but the general sense is that they should be avoided in briefs. On the Lawyerist blog, Matthew Salzwedel quotes the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia as calling contractions “marketplace” vulgarisms and warning lawyers that judges might view them as “an affront to the dignity of the court. …  And those judges who don’t take offense will not understand your brief, or vote for your case, one whit more readily.” (Salzwedel notes, “Perhaps only Justice Scalia can get away with using a contraction — ‘don’t’— when instructing lawyers not to use contractions such as ‘don’t.’”)

4. The fourth contraction-free zone might be surprising. It’s newspaper journalism, especially as practiced in “The New York Times. The “Times” style guide instructs, “In straightforward news copy, spell out expressions like ‘'is not,’ ‘has not,’ ‘have not,’ ‘do not,’ ‘are not,’ ‘will not,’ etc.” And sure enough, the lead story on the paper’s website as I write sidesteps contractions 12 times, including three times in these two sentences:

“The White House did not invite to the briefing Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who has come under fire from the president and his team. Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, was not in the room, either.” (Emphasis added.)

The only contractions that appear are in quotations.

I see that in this post, I have chosen contractions six times and avoided them six. How’s that for transparency?

And this is Mignon: I’ll add that I’m sure that I contracted some of Ben’s non-contractions because I do it unconsciously as I’m reading scripts, so that’s another level of transparency.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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