In high school, I had a teacher who would dock your paper half a percentage point for every contraction she found. Using “didn’t” instead of “did not” or “you’re” instead of “you are” was all but offensive to her. On the flip side, a friend of mine got a paper back from a different teacher with several words circled and a note saying, “USE CONTRACTIONS!” So who was right? The answer, as cryptic as it sounds, is they both were.
Remind Me: What Are Contractions?
Contractions are when two words are pushed together and shortened using an apostrophe. “Do not” is squished together and the “o” in “not” is replaced with an apostrophe to read “don’t.” Really, contractions are just shorthand, the same way an ampersand (&) is used to symbolize “and.” Somewhere along the line, the written use of contractions became vocalized and is now second nature to English speakers.
So while using contractions doesn’t really help to save time in writing anymore (or to fit iambic pentameter, but that’s another issue altogether), we still speak and write with them because it’s become the natural thing to do. I dare you to try to go a whole day without using contractions; it’s nearly impossible.
Teacher #1 didn’t like contractions because she saw them as shorthand; she felt contractions were a “lazy” way of writing and wanted students to put in the effort to spell out the words and refine their writing. However, teacher #2 encouraged using contractions because it’s the natural way of speaking and not having contractions disrupted the flow of the paper.
In the end, whether or not you use a contraction—particularly in your marketing copy—is dependent on the audience for your message, the tone of your message, and the importance of the words.
Consider Your Audience When Using Contractions
For critical communications (like business writing, research reports, scholarly articles, etc.), or for messages that are going to leadership, government, or other authority figures, it’s best to avoid contractions. Spell out exactly what it is you’re saying, since contractions are used in casual conversation and can be overlooked when read quickly.
My tip: if I would want to wear a suit presenting this to my audience, I do not use contractions.
Example sentence: “The following report does not include financial statements from Q2 2017.”
Since the above is for a report and addresses finances, it is too formal to use contractions.
Think About the Tone of Your Message
If the tone is serious, stay away from using contractions. Contractions are informal, and can grate on your reader if the topic is something that’s important to them. However, if you want the audience to feel like they’re being spoken to, contractions can be used to put them at ease and make reading more comfortable.
My tip: If the text could include a coupon for the topic and not be weird, I use contractions.
Example sentence: “When it comes to high-end vacuums, you can’t beat these prices!”
A coupon could be included in a marketing message like this, so using contractions is okay.
How Important Is It?
Just like italics, boldface, and underlining, a lack of contractions puts emphasis on words. Contractions are easily read and skimmed over, so if you want something to stick out, spelling out both words forces the reader to take a pause, especially if the rest of the writing uses contractions.
My tip: If I’d lean in, talk louder, or pause when speaking the text, I do not use contractions.
Example sentence: “Do not turn in this form without a signature.”
The signature is important in this case, and not using a contraction draws attention to it.
Do Not Get Fancy
One more note about using contractions… Most contractions are commonplace within our everyday dialect; others are more specific to region (think “ain’t”) or time period (like “e’er”). Please do not include arcane contractions in your marketing copy; it only confuses your audience.
My tip: if it sounds like Shakespeare or could be the punch line of an internet meme, stay away.
Example sentence: “Isn’t it nice to have insurance you can count on?”
“Isn’t” is a commonly used contraction, so using it in this case it fine.
Still confused about whether or not to use contractions? Feel free to contact me.
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