Using contractions in English

Contractions in writing are a bit of a minefield for non-native speakers of English. When we native English speakers talk, we naturally use contractions, but when we write we seldom do – unless it is a very informal note or email. The problem comes about for two reasons.

  1. Most non-native speakers hear English spoken at the movies or on television and we use contractions when we speak.
  2. Email is like a cross between spoke and written English. More informal than a letter but still, if you do it for work, an official document.

My rule of thumb has always been to think of written English as though you are going to a party where you don’t know the dress code. It is far better to dress up than dress down. It is much easier to take off a tie or roll up your sleeves if you arrive overdressed. But impossible to smarten up if you are underdressed. So with English writing, be more informal and then dial it down if the reply you receive is informal.

And part of being proper and formal is not using contractions. So instead of:

I’m afraid the ambassador can’t come to the party, write I am afraid the ambassador is unable to come to the party (you can also write cannot but I usually use unable because words with hard consonants sound very harsh).

In Swedish you have någonting and nånting. Or någon and nån. If you would not use nånting/nån in Swedish, then do not use can’t/it’s/I’ll/we’ll/we’ve etc in English. Write in full all words that are often contracted.

  • can’t becomes cannot
  • we’ve becomes we have
  • I’ve becomes I have
  • we’ll becomes we will
  • it’s becomes it is

…… and so on.



Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

3 thoughts

  1. Or for those numpties who think that “would’ve” becomes “would of” etc. I feel my blood pressure rise sharply whenever I see one of those 🙁

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