Using Contractions Correctly

Understanding the proper use of contractions can greatly improve your writing.

About Contractions

Since the word contract means to squeeze together, it seems only logical that a contraction is two words made shorter by placing an apostrophe where letters have been omitted.

Examples of common contractions in the English language include:

  • I’m: I am
  • Can’t: can not
  • We’ve: we have
  • Should’ve: should have
  • Could’ve: could have
  • She’ll: she will
  • He’s: he is
  • They’d: they would
  • Won’t: will not
  • Weren’t: were not
  • Wasn’t: was not
  • Wouldn’t: would not
  • Shouldn’t: should not
  • Isn’t: is not

Technically speaking, contractions aren’t necessary in written English. Using the full version of a word is always grammatically correct. However, there are a number of reasons why contractions do serve a valuable stylistic purpose. For example:

  • Contractions make your writing seem friendly and accessible. They give the appearance that you are actually “talking” to your reader.
  • When writing dialogue in a novel or play, contractions help reflect how a character actually speaks.
  • Contractions help to save space when preparing advertisements, slogans, and other written works that must be short and to the point.

It’s and Its

It’s and its are two of the most commonly confused words in the English language. However, understanding the difference between these two words is crucial for successful communication.

It’s is a contraction for it is or it has. For example:

  • I think it’s going to snow on Monday.
  • It’s been a long time since I last saw Ben.
  • It’s a small world after all.

Its is a possessive pronoun. Its modifies a noun and is used to show ownership. For example:

  • The bear carried its cub in its mouth.
  • Nothing can take its place.
  • The cat licked with its tongue.

To determine if you should use it’s or its in your sentence, simply try replacing the word with it is or it has. If the sentence makes sense, it’s is appropriate. If not, use its. For example:

  • “Nothing can take it is place” makes no sense. Therefore, the correct word to use is its.
  • “It is raining outside” is a perfectly acceptable sentence. Therefore, you may use it’s if you wish.

They’re, Their and There

They’re, their and there are also quite commonly confused words among students who are learning about contractions.

They’re is a contraction for they are. For example:

  • They’re happy to see me.
  • I think they’re very nice boys.
  • In my opinion, they’re a fine group of athletes.

Their is a possessive pronoun. It is used when you want to show that something belongs to someone. For example:

  • Their new home is in San Diego.
  • Their address is 517 West Maple.
  • What is their phone number?

There is used to mean that something is at or in a particular place. For example:

  • There is a present on the table.
  • There are green beans on my plate, but I asked for broccoli.
  • Look over there to see the ocean.

Deciding which word to use is easy if you remember a few simple tips:

  • If you can replace the questionable word with they are, they’re is correct.
  • If you can replace the questionable word with his or her, their is correct.
  • If you can replace the questionable word with here, there is correct.

Using Contractions in Formal Writing

While contractions can be very useful in written English, many experts caution against the use of contractions in formal communication. Since contractions tend to add a light and informal tone to your writing, they are often inappropriate for academic research papers, business presentations, and other types of official correspondence. However, this rule does have some flexibility.

In general, it’s best to use your own judgment when deciding if contractions are appropriate for a particular piece.

End of Sentence Contractions

Contractions can be used in any position in a sentence; however, homophone contractions such as “it’s” and “they’re” sound better when followed by another word or phrase. The reason is that the sounds of “its” and “it’s” and “they’re” and “they are” are so similar that they can be confusing unless they are used with the context of an additional word. For example:

  • Incorrect: “It is what it’s.”
  • Correct: “It is what it is looking like.”
  • Correct: “It is what it is.”
  • Incorrect: “You said they didn’t want to go, well, they’re.”
  • Correct: “”You said they didn’t want to go, well, they’re going.”
  • Correct: “You said they didn’t want to go, well, they are.”