A few years ago, a student dropped a linguistics course I was teaching because the textbook used contractions. The student had done some editorial work and felt that contractions did not belong in a college textbook, much less one he was paying 50 dollars for. It was probably all for the best. If he didn’t like contractions, he probably would’ve hated the course.
When the matter came up, I mentioned that the formality of earlier times had passed and that writing in the twentieth century and twenty-first had moved in the direction of colloquial speech, with its contractions and reductions. Contractions, I suggested, often made writing more readable and accessible.
And I recommended Garner’s Modern English Usage to him for a second opinion. I recalled Garner writing that contractions were acceptable in “most types of writing,” though he noted many people “feel uncomfortable” with them. My secret hope was that someone in the class would get interested enough in contractions to write a paper on the subject.
That didn’t happen, but the episode got me to think more about contractions—when they are smooth and when they are clumsy or even impossible. Garner, for example, notes the orthographic illusion of contracting who are to who’re, and he reminds us of the sketchiness of multiple contractions such as I’d’ve. And of course, there’s the potential for misspelling when could’ve, would’ve and should’ve become internalized as could of, would of, and should of.
The lesson is that it pays to keep track of different types of contractions and some of their surprising intricacies.
Consider the adverb not, which can be contracted as n’t on most auxiliary verbs: isn’t, aren’t, haven’t, didn’t, and so on. The big exception is the contraction of am and not as ain’t, which is still frowned upon in speech and proscribed in conventional writing. But contraction is also impossible with may: there is no mayn’t (or main’t).
Not can be contracted onto auxiliary verbs, but auxiliaries themselves also contract to a preceding subject noun (Sally’s going) or pronoun (I’d, you’ll, they’re, etcetera). However, you can’t do both types of contraction at once: there is no Sally’sn’t or they’ren’t.
Contraction is not anything-goes simplification; it’s got its patterns. The contraction ‘ll refers to will not shall (though there are some historical counter-examples). And the contracted ‘d represents had or would (I’d just gotten home… or I’d help if I could …).But ’d is never understood as could or should, a quirk noticed long ago by the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen.
Still another curiosity has to do with the strange behavior of the main verb be. The auxiliaries have and be contract quite easily. But main verb have resists contraction in American English (hence the oddness of I’ve a new car in American English). The main verb be, however, contracts freely (as in Everyone’s very happy). Be is a main verb that behaves like an auxiliary.
Contraction is also impossible before the omission created by ellipsis. So, sentences such as Sarah is a better speaker than I’m or Jo has read as many novels as she’s are decidedly unEnglish.
Linguists love such intricacies of contraction for what they can tell us about how language works. For working writers, there is this advice from Rudolf Flesch’s 1949 The Art of Readable Writing:
Contractions have to be used with care. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don’t. It depends on whether you would use the contraction in speaking that particular sentence (e.g. in this sentence I would say you would and not you’d).
That’s good advice. When in doubt, read it aloud and see how it sounds.
Featured image: “Rock formation in in Joshua Tree National Park, Southern California.” by Brocken Inagory. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.