When Should I Avoid Contractions in Writing?


In today’s text-speaking, emoji-using, open world, it’s commonplace to use contractions to mimic the spoken word. After all, who among us speaks formally all the time? But when is it NOT okay be so informal? When should you avoid contractions?

Let’s start with a brief discussion of when contractions are acceptable.

When you’re writing conversationally, like a blog entry or an email to a friend or family member, you can let your writing reflect the way you speak.

You can even use this informal, conversational approach when you’re writing a novel and want your characters’ voices to sound natural. For example, which of these sentences reads more like natural speech?

  • Suzy complained, “He does not ever listen to me, so he did not hear me tell him to move.”
  • Suzy complained, “He doesn’t ever listen to me, so he didn’t hear me tell him to move.”

Obviously, the second sentence sounds more like a typical speech pattern, right?

Okay, so we know that contractions are fine for informal, conversational writing and to accurately depict common speech in fiction writing.

When to Avoid Contractions

When should we NOT use contractions, though?

Generally speaking, avoid contractions in formal writing, such as business letters, essays, technical papers, and research papers.

In other words, don’t use contractions in any academic writing unless you’re directly quoting someone or in a passage that contains contractions.

For example, “We’ve seen that children who eat breakfast perform better” is fine for your blog but in a formal paper, you’d write, “We have seen that children…”

But if you’re quoting Dr. I. M. Expert, and her exact words were, “I’ve never seen these results before,” then that is EXACTLY how you write it—just as she said it.

In a cover letter accompanying your resume for a job application, avoid contractions. It is considered formal writing, and you want to give the best impression you can. A casual approach in your cover letter might lead your potential employer to the conclusion that you’d take the same relaxed approach to your job.

In any professional writing that’s meant for an audience of your peers, contractions lessen the impact of your words and may lead to your ideas/research not being taken seriously.

If you’re writing an essay or research paper, keep in mind that an informal, conversational writing style is pretty much GPA suicide. Be formal. Be proper. Avoid contractions.

So basically, in writing for friends or family or dialog in fiction, feel free to use all the contractions you want. But if your intended audience is your professional colleagues, your professors, or a potential employer, take a formal approach and avoid contractions.

Originally posted 12/1/2015 and happily updated 10/28/2017. Thanks for reading!

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