Contractions: don’t just ban them all

Blanket bans on words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’ and ‘should’ve’ are impractical and hard to implement. Try a more flexible approach...

 Contractions: don’t just ban them all

It’s not uncommon to come across an editorial style guide that mandates ‘no contractions’. In other words, writers are forbidden to use words such as:

  • it’s
  • won’t
  • can’t
  • don’t

Instead, the guidance requires:

  • it is
  • will not
  • cannot
  • do not

This is often the case when the required tone of voice is professional, businesslike or otherwise rather formal – writing for a large bank, for example, or in business-to-business communications.

But a blanket ban doesn’t really work in all contexts. It’s almost guaranteed that when you actually start producing copy you’ll run into problems: a phrase that’s crying out for a contraction and reads clumsily without it, or a space restriction in a title or button that would be simple to solve if only you could use that apostrophe.

In practice it’s better not to treat contractions as a uniform class of words that automatically give copy a formal or informal tone, and instead to take a more flexible, pragmatic approach.

Not all contractions are equal

We tend to lump contractions together as an index of formality when in fact they differ significantly in their familiarity and effect. A blanket rule forbidding (or encouraging) contractions suggests all of these words have the same effect on your tone:

  • it’s
  • shouldn’t’ve
  • ain’t
  • can’t
  • ne’er

The problem is that a rule aimed at regulating tone of voice is enforced by looking for a tell-tale apostrophe. But this clearly won’t do: a word like ‘can’t’ is so familiar that it barely seems an abbreviation at all, while ‘shouldn’t’ve’ would pull almost any reader up short.

The middle way

The common-sense approach is surely to allow or forbid contractions according to the context. In a serious factual news article, for instance, it could well make sense to steer clear. Here’s The Guardian’s style guide:

Do not overuse contractions such as aren't, can't, couldn't, hasn't, don't, I'm, it's, there's and what's (even the horrific there've has appeared); while they might make a piece more colloquial or easier to read, they can be an irritant and a distraction, and make a serious article sound frivolous. They also look horrible.

Although it’s clear which side of the stylistic argument The Guardian is on, this sensible guidance recognises that contractions sometimes have their place and only goes so far as to forbid ‘overuse'. It also admits that ‘they might make a piece more colloquial or easier to read’ – in online copy aimed at consumers or service users, a more colloquial tone may be just what’s required, and ease of reading is a massive benefit on screen.

A different but equally sensible approach comes from the guidance for writers on gov.uk:

Use contractions, eg ‘they’ve’, ‘we’ll’. Avoid using ‘should’ve’, ‘could’ve’, ‘would’ve’ etc – these are hard to read.

In summary…

When you want to establish a formal or informal tone, don’t feel that you need to have a blanket rule for all contractions. Each carries its own tonal baggage, so feel free to be flexible and judge according to context.