A Guide to Contractions in English Grammar
  • 4-minute read
  • 24th January 2023

A Guide to Contractions in English Grammar

In the English language, contractions are two words combined into one. To make speech easier and save time, a letter or two are removed from the phrase to create a single word. The missing letters are replaced with an apostrophe to indicate that a contraction has been formed.

Contractions are used readily in everyday speech, so adding them to your writing creates a more conversational and natural tone. They also sound more informal and casual. Let’s look at some different types of contractions and how you can use them.

Types of Contractions

The most common type of contraction is the combination of a subject pronoun (e.g., I, she, they) and a verb (e.g., have, are, is). Let’s look at a few examples:

We are going to the store. → We’re going to the store.
I am five minutes away. → I’m five minutes away.
She is starting a new job. → She’s starting a new job.

Negative contractions are when you combine a verb with “not” to give it a negative meaning. For example:

Sally cannot make it to the party. → Sally can’t make it to the party.
We have not picked a date yet. → We haven’t picked a date yet.
Jack does not like olives. → Jack doesn’t like olives.

Another common contraction is to combine an adverb (e.g., here, how) with the verb “is” or to combine a modal verb (e.g., could, should) with “have.” For example:

What is for dinner? → What’s for dinner?
I might have already seen that movie. → I might’ve already seen that movie.

Using Contractions Correctly in Writing

While people use contractions every day, it’s best not to use them in formal writing. That includes academic papers, research reports, and formal business writing. Contractions sound too casual and unprofessional in those contexts and detract from an authoritative tone.

There are also many contractions that are acceptable in speech but don’t work in writing at all (unless you’re writing dialogue). These include colloquial contractions, which are slang words (e.g., ain’t), phrases only used in certain regions (e.g., y’all), or relaxed pronunciations of words that lead to dropping a letter or two (e.g., kinda).

This also includes double contractions, which are when you add a second contraction to an already contracted word. For example:

I’d’ve come with you → I would have come with you.
You shouldn’t’ve been surprised. → You should not have been surprised.

Be careful with noun contractions, too. Sometimes they can work in writing, such as with names (e.g., Kara’s on her way), but in many cases, they can sound clunky and should only be used in speech (e.g., my friend’ll give you a call).

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Possessives and Contractions

It’s easy to mix contractions up with possessive words, which, confusingly, also use apostrophes. In American English, contractions are never possessive. In UK English, it can be acceptable for a contraction with “has” or “have” to express possession, but this is rare in writing.

To prevent ambiguity, possessive pronouns that look like contracted words sometimes omit the apostrophe and/or change the spelling slightly. For example:

Contraction:

Who is coming to the party → Who’s coming to the party?
Possessive:

Who’s bag is this?
Possessive:

Whose bag is this?
Contraction:

It is not dark out yet. → It’s not dark out yet.
Possessive:

Give the dog it’s toy!
Possessive:

Give the dog its toy!
Contraction:

They are not going to the beach. → They’re not going to the beach.
Possessive

They’re house is down the street.
Possessive

Their house is down the street.

Summary: Using Contractions

To summarize, contractions are used in the English language to save time and make words flow more smoothly. In writing, they can be used to create a more conversational and informal tone. Let’s recap some of the main points from this post.

FAQs


What are the main types of contractions?

The most common contraction is a subject pronoun with a verb (e.g., they’re, he’s, I’ll). Negative pronouns combine “not” with a verb to form the negative (e.g., don’t, won’t, isn’t). And adverbs and modal verbs are also often combined with “is” and “have,” respectively.

Are contractions acceptable in all forms of writing?

Contractions should rarely be used in formal writing. You should also avoid using colloquial contractions and double contractions in writing, and be careful when using noun contractions, as some of them aren’t very common and can sound awkward.

How can I avoid mixing up possessive words and contractions?

If you’re unsure whether a word is possessive or a contraction, consider the context of the sentence. Would the meaning make sense if the word were broken up into a non-contracted form, or would it make more sense if the term implied ownership of the word that comes after it?

Conclusion:

We hope this guide has cleared up any confusion you’ve had about using contractions in your writing. If you’re still unsure, though, why not let an expert check your work for you? We’ll even proofread the first 500 words for free!

Comments (2)
scott
26th January 2023 at 10:19
You should have proofed this article again. The U.S. South is often associated with a contraction of “you all,” which is an alternative plural possessive (not unlike “youse” heard in some parts of the North). It is *never* used in the singular. Say “y’all” in reference to an individual in the South and you’ll notice people trying not to laugh and draw attention to your gaffe. The correct contraction is NOT “ya’ll,” which you folks cite as an example of correct punctuation of the contraction of “you all.” It is *not.” The correct contraction is “y’all.” And don’t use it while riding on a New York City subway; you’ll be laughed off the train.
    Proofed
    2nd February 2023 at 12:21
    Thanks for pointing out the typo there, Scott. It should indeed be “y’all” (“you all”), not “ya’ll” (“you will”), so we’ll get that amended. We are just using it in passing as an example of colloquial contractions, but the extra information here is very helpful. Thank you!

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