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Do Not Use Contractions. (Don’t Worry, I Didn’t Mean It!)

During a conversation with a colleague, I mentioned that my next blog was going to be on contractions. Most of her response I can’t repeat, but basically she said that when she was growing up, her teachers drilled into her brain that she should never use contractions in her writings. They were too informal and sloppy, her teachers maintained.

Many people in my writing seminars tell me similar stories.

A contraction, according to the Gregg Reference Manual, a respected writing resource, is “a shortened form of a word or phrase in which an apostrophe indicates the omitted letters or words: for example, don’t for do not.”

My response to my colleague and to the participants in my seminars is always the same: “Why can’t we use contractions? We use them when we speak, so why isn’t it okay to write with them?”

A primary goal of writing is to connect with your reader, and your choice of words helps to make that connection. There aren’t any non-verbal clues to help make your point when you email someone – the reader doesn’t see the smile on your face or hear the friendly tone of your voice. (Yes, I know there are emoticons, but I do not encourage their use in business writing.)

Using contractions helps you to convey a conversational tone. It makes the communication sound more personal and friendly, and less like a directive. Listen to the difference: “Let’s go to the conference on Monday,” or, “Let us go to the conference on Monday.” Don’t you think the second version sounds rather stilted?

Here are my suggestions for using contractions successfully in business writing:

1. Think about your use of contractions. It may not be first on your list of business concerns, but the quality of your writing is important. Do you use contractions? One of my interns had the courage to point out to me that I used contractions a lot. I hadn’t realized just how much until she said something. I really valued that feedback.

2. Do not overuse them.  Just because you can use contractions in your writing in today’s business world, doesn’t mean you should always use them. Read your documents out loud to hear how your use of contractions sounds. If your writings sound choppy, chances are you are using too many contractions.

3. Avoid excessively casual contractions. Some contractions sound sloppy. For example: “You’d” for “you would,” or “she’s” for “she has.” I recommend not using them in business writing. And please, don’t ever be tempted by double contractions, such as “shouldn’t’ve” for “should not have.”

4. Know what your boss prefers. If your boss does not want you to use contractions, don’t! This is not (isn’t) rocket science, and is not worth fighting over.

5. Understand the difference between it’s and its. A common mistake involves the difference between “it’s” – which is the contraction for “it is” – and the possessive “its.” The way to remember the difference between them is that the apostrophe in “it’s” means something is missing. If you aren’t sure, read your sentence aloud and then substitute the non-contraction form (in this case, “it is”) to see whether it still makes sense. (It’s time to put the pencil in its case, for example. If you had an erroneous apostrophe in the second its, the sentence wouldn’t make sense.) People often use the wrong form in their writings, and others love to point out their mistakes. Don’t give them the opportunity!

Your use of contractions may not seem like a big deal, but it is one of the many little things that can impact your writings, and therefore worthy of your attention. Additional information on business writing can be found in my  book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes (McGraw Hill).

Pachter & Associates provides training and coaching on business writing and communication. For more information, contact Joyce Hoff at 856.751.6141 or joyce@pachter.com.

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