Avoid Contractions In Your Writing For Clarity

Our post on ten phrases that are often misused because they were misheard has attracted lots of comments. Many of them related to errors where "of" gets used in place of "have", such as "should of" instead of "should have" or "should've". That is indeed annoying, but it also serves of a reminder of another useful rule: contractions are often best avoided in your writing.

I first got introduced to this principle by an editor many years ago, who argued that writing out contractions in full made for easier reading and comprehension, especially for people who had acquired English as a second language. It was a valid point: native speakers make enough of a mess of distinguishing between "its" and "it's" as it is, let alone when "it's" is used as an abbreviation for "it has". Spelling them out minimises the risk of confusion.

I have tried to keep that rule in mind ever since, even though sites such as Lifehacker often favour using contractions to avoid an overly formal tone. Naturally, that stricture doesn't apply if you are writing a novel, or in the kind of informal text, IM or Twitter chat where spelling and grammar often go by the wayside anyway. However, for work-related documents, it can be a useful approach.


    When writing emails at work I tend to write more formally, and as you've suggested, I'm less likely to use contractions. However, I've had a number of occasions where people skim-reading my emails have actually taken away the wrong message because of it.

    For example, some people reading "I have not tried", will process the "have" but somehow skip the "not". I've found I'm less likely to be misunderstood if I instead use "haven't".

    I'm not sure if this says more about their reading or my writing. ;) But it's something I've learnt to take note of.

    You hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph. Contractions are confusing, but they give your writing a jaunty, informal feel - which may be a "good thing".

    Jaunty works for Lifehacker, it doesn't (does not) work for management reports or formal writing. The art is knowing when contractions are appropriate, but if you're the kind of writer who stumbles over its and it's - stick with the longer version.

    As a writer for the spoken word, I find that contractions are easier on the ear. "Haven't" reads more fluently than "have not". However, if you want to emphasise the words, "have not" is more emphatic than "haven't".

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