On Contractions and such

contractionSummer is upon us in New York City and the sweltering heat is doing something to me head. I feel as if some of my posts lately can easily fall into the category of “curmudgeonly” or “grumpy,” and, perhaps, this one will as well. I recently did some freelance editing for a company, like many companies, that had its own house style. I’ve written reviews and edited for organizations before that had their own styles which I always tried to adhere to, but these past styles have been, in a sense, creative and engaging (even when the venue hasn’t been a particular creative or engaging one).

So, I did a few edits for the company which I realized right from the beginning (okay, maybe not right but incredibly close) was going to be like pulling teeth. I recall in high school, some of my friend’s in freshman English telling me that their teacher would take off points if they used contractions in their essays. Whole points! I know that the old standard in academic and business writing is to avoid contractions at all possible costs, but penalizing a person seemed extreme. A friendly reminder should be suitable enough.

But going back to my recent experience…this company, like many, nixed contractions. Everything had to be spelled out (with the exception of numbers–even small numerals like 1, 2, 3). What I edited were generally massive information dumps disguised as reviews by people who had lukewarm writing skills. Not only were they forced to abide by these strict rules, but so was I. No problem, right? But the problem is that this writing was not academic or solely business writing. The company wanted these reviews to appear engaging, creative, and quick to read. In short, they wanted narratives.

I found it easy to avoid contractions at all costs. But then something happened. I felt this infiltrating my own writing; I felt it becoming something that I could easily pick up on as I read the news or an email; I felt it immediately when I recently started reading a novel which utilizes the limiting of contractions as a technique for the voice.

The grammatical rule is that contractions are informal and should be relegated to speech and everything should be spelled out in essays, academic writing, and business. The argument is that by writing words fully, you are making your point clearly and efficiently. Contractions give an air of conversation.

But I ask myself, is this true? Is this outlook, perhaps, outdated? Maybe, in an essay or report where you have more freedom to write effectively and conform to your own standards, writing without contractions is no big deal. Alas, I found this company’s house style–contractions included–dull and dimwitted. They employed a dumb-downed approach that included the same list of vocabulary terms which one could poach from. My guess is that by nixing contractions, they wanted their reviews to read fluidly and clearly. Yet, by putting too many restrictions on language in hopes of producing crisp content, they boxed themselves into a mundane and repetitive system.

I am a fan of both contractions and spelling things out. Each come in handy for certain things and emphasize moods, language, and emotion, but, maybe I am thinking of this with my fiction writer cap on. Thoughts?

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11 comments

  1. I have to agree with you on things like ‘can’t’. I struggle to think where ‘cannot’ would be better, even in an academic essay, since the feeling of ‘cannot’ is so much more prohibitive than ‘can’t’. I teach ESL so often at the end of the day find my speech riddled with the absence of contractions. ‘I will go to bed soon’, that sort of thing that gets the meaning across in the least appealing way.

    1. I too found my writing was becoming heavy without the presence of contractions. I was always good at it in regards to writing dialogue and then I was noticing that something was up. I finished with that company and I hope I can shake the remnants of their style from my mind and fingers.

  2. In the technical writing world, contractions have always been a no-no. That is, until recently. The most recent edition of the “Microsoft Manual of Style” states, “Use contractions to create a friendly, conversational tone.” They also give rules on how to use them. There are times where contractions just read better than spelling out the complete words. It’s tough enough to slog through technical documentation. I think we should do what we can to make it easier for the reader.

      1. I’m working on a technical book now, for a publishing company that specializes in programming language manuals and other computer-related topics. They encourage contractions, for the conversational tone (as in janp’s example above).

        I can imagine instances (legal or business) where the “no-contraction” rule conveys not just formality, but an appropriate tone of force (“Party A shall not disclose trade secrets learned in the course of its business dealings with Party B”). I can’t imagine that formality or that tone being needed in reviews.

      2. It’s interesting to hear that technical writing is going toward contractions. I know the argument that having them is informal and not as clear, but inserting them at just the right moment, I think, eases understanding and helps with clarity as well as emphasizes certain points. Your example with legalese is a good one. It is a specific yet dull language that only part of the population understands. I’m always double counting the “nots” to make sure I have some grasp of what’s being said.

        I’m not about making everything super lax and too conversational but I like that we’re loosening up the rules a little.

    1. My freshman English teacher was no peach either. I remember this horrid and outdated green textbook she made us copy from for hours. I hope they don’t teach kids this way anymore!

  3. When you talked about contractions, I thought you might be bringing up the topic of texting. I have my theory about that. Typing has also contracted, from ten fingers to one, so shortening words is necessary in such cases. I think there’s a case for both formal and informal language, depending on what you’re writing or reading. Thkxs 2 u.

    1. I didn’t even think of text writing, actually! Oddly, I have no real opinion on it. Maybe, because most people I use texts with don’t use SMS contractions (which are definitely a different animal than what I wrote about). If I had more exposure to it, I might form a more concrete opinion but I do understand why people choose to do this because of the venue in which one is writing.

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