Contraction Distraction | OUPblog

A few years ago, a student dropped out of a linguistics class I was teaching because the textbook used contractions. The student had done some editorial work and felt contractions had no place in a college textbook, let alone the one he was paying $50 for. Everything was probably for the best. If he didn’t like the contractions, he probably would have hated the class.

When the question was raised, I mentioned that the formality of ancient times had passed and that 20th and 21st century writing had evolved in the direction of colloquial language, with its contractions and reductions. The contractions, I suggested, often made the writing more readable and accessible.

And I recommended Garner’s Modern English Usage to him for a second opinion. I remembered Garner writing that contractions were acceptable in “most types of writing”, although he noted that many people “felt uncomfortable” with them. My secret hope was that someone in the class would care enough about contractions to write an article on the subject.

That didn’t happen, but the episode made me think more about contractions – when they’re gentle and when they’re awkward or even impossible. Garner, for example, notes the orthographic illusion of contracting which are for whore, and it reminds us of the summary character of multiple contractions such as I will have. And of course there is a risk of misspellings when could have, could have and should have internalizes as could of, would of, and should of.

The lesson is that it pays to follow the different types of contractions and some of their surprising intricacies.

Consider the adverb do not, which can be contracted as NT on most auxiliary verbs: isn’t, isn’t it, didn’t, didn’t, etc. The big exception is the contraction of a m and do not as is not it, which is still frowned upon in speech and outlawed in conventional writing. But the contraction is also impossible with may: There’s no maybe not (or not).

Not can be contracted on auxiliary verbs, but the auxiliaries themselves also contract to a preceding subject noun (Sally goes) or pronoun (I, you go, they are, etc). However, you cannot do both types of contraction at the same time: there is no Sally is not or they are not.

The contraction is not an all-out simplification; he has his motives. Contracture ‘ll refers to will be do not to have to (although there are historical counterexamples). And the contracted ‘D represented had or would (I had just gotten home… or I would help if I could…).But ‘D is never understood as could or should, a quirk noticed long ago by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen.

Yet another curiosity has to do with the strange behavior of the main verb be. The auxiliaries to have and be contract fairly easily. But main verb to have resists contraction in American English (hence the strangeness of i have a new car in American English). The main verb behowever, contracts freely (as in Everyone is very happy). Be is a main verb that behaves like an auxiliary.

The contraction is also impossible in front of the omission created by the suspension points. Thus, sentences such as Sarah is a better speaker than me or Jo has read as many novels as she are definitely not English.

Linguists love these contraction complexities for what they can tell us about how language works. For working writers, there’s this advice from Rudolf Flesch from 1949 The art of legible writing:

Contractions should be used with caution. Sometimes they agree, sometimes not. It depends on whether you would use the contraction when saying that particular sentence (for example, in this sentence I would say you would and not you would do).

That’s good advice. If in doubt, read it out loud and see how it sounds.

Featured Image: “Rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park, Southern California.” by Brocken Inagory. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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