Cutting it short: when and when not to use contractions in your writing

Contractions can give your copy a personal tone, but they can also add unwanted complexity to your work. Here are the dos and don’ts of cutting it short.

contractions blog

Whether you’re writing a website, a whitepaper, a social media post or a note for your milkman, there’s one thing that should always be at the front of your mind: you are writing for a person. A real-life, living breathing being. Not a job title. Or a company.

That means you want your writing to appeal to that person’s human sensibilities – you want to write to them as if you would talk to them, because that way they feel like they’re part of a conversation.

Contractions can be a great way of creating this kind of personable tone in your work. They can take a text that’s robotic and overly formal and make it personable, friendly, and easy to digest.

To me, they’re a no-brainer. It just seems like a natural way of communicating. But, it’s not always easy to convince your clients of their power – especially those in industries that take themselves very seriously, and think that big, long words in sprawling sentences are a sign of intelligence and expertise.

Scientific writing is one area particularly guilty of this. And these days, even MS Word is at it. You may have noticed that it’s started underlining contractions in a squiggly line, and suggesting more long-winded alternatives, as if it’s suddenly been told something the rest of us didn’t get the memo about.

Here’s the thing about that, though – as much as I like to complain about it, and I do, it turns out that overly formal language isn’t always wrong. And it’s not always driven by pomposity, either. In fact, a recent post by Content Design London based on a raft of user research, suggests that contractions can sometimes hurt your copy more than they can help.

Who finds contractions difficult?

Writing isn’t always about writing the way you want to. In fact, and unromantic as it sounds, more often than not it’s about writing in the most efficient way to deliver information to your reader.

With that in mind, there are several audiences that may find contractions hard to process. People with learning disabilities or low literacy levels are one example. People who have English as a second language are another.

And that’s a lot of people.

In fact, of the approximately 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, less than 400 million speak it as their first language. (It’s worth pointing out, that English is a notoriously difficult language to learn, with complex sentence structures and numerous linguistic inconsistencies. Contractions are probably way down the list of evils in this context, but still worth bearing in mind.)

For these demographics, there is some indication that contractions can actually require more mental effort to read, and can cause your audience to misinterpret sentences. But, it apparently all comes down to the kind of contraction you’re using.

Here are some tips to help prevent your apostrophes from causing catastrophes.

Negative contractions are a no-no

Research suggests that negative contractions, like “shouldn’t”, “don’t”, “can’t” etc., are harder to read for many people.

In fact, often people read these as their more positive counterparts, with “shouldn’t” becoming “should” and “couldn’t” becoming “could” etc. Obviously, this can have a major impact on the message you’re trying to get across.

This isn’t just a mistake made by people with low literacy levels, either. For people who are time poor or highly stressed, these mistakes are likely to be more common, so it’s worth bearing that in mind. If you’re writing for a CEO with a laundry list of white papers to get through, maybe it’s a good idea to knock the negative contractions on the head after all?

Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve used the full word

Similarly, complex contractions can cause confusion, too. People with low literacy levels can find words like “should’ve”, “would’ve” and “could’ve” particularly hard to read.

However, the good news with these examples is that writing “could have” doesn’t seem quite as overly formal as, say, writing “do not” in place of “don’t”. Worth bearing in mind, perhaps.

Good contractions

Another thing to consider is that not all contractions appear to be hard for some readers to process – so your copy doesn’t have to sound like a 16th century gent bartering over a dowry just yet.

For instance, there’s no evidence that simple contractions – words like “you’ll”, “we’ll’, “they’re’” and “it’s” – cause any difficulty. Although, Content Design London is currently putting this to the test.

Using apostrophes to indicate possession is also generally considered to be fine. Although, it’s worth mentioning that these studies are still being carried out, so as an industry we’re really learning as we go here.

The key takeaway though, as with all writing, is to think about the person most likely to be reading your copy. It can be a delicate balance between making your work readable and giving it the required tone – and striking that balance correctly requires you to put yourselves in the shoes of your target persona.

Personally, unless I know I’m writing for an audience where people have difficulty reading or are speaking English as a second language, I’ll probably continue to use contractions to strike a more personable tone – but at the very least this will give me some food for thought.

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