A contraction in speech or writing is a word, syllable, or phrase that has been shortened by omitting one or more letters and sounds. An apostrophe is used to denote the position of the missing letters. E.g., words or phrases we often use like ‘they are’, ‘cannot’, and ‘I have’ are shrunk to ‘they’re’, ‘can’t’, and ‘I’ve’ respectively. The latter three are called contractions.
Contractions in grammar are fairly common involving main verbs, auxiliary verbs, and modal verbs. Auxiliary verbs are called helping verbs, and they include the various forms of ‘to be’, ‘to have’, and ‘to do’. They help to express the tense, mood, aspect, etc. of the clause. Modal verbs are a subset of auxiliary verbs that express obligation, ability, likelihood, etc. These include can, could, may, might, must, etc.
So, we can see that contractions usually are a combination of a noun/pronoun and a verb or a combination of a verb and the word ‘not’. They are sometimes regarded as ‘short forms’. Thus, we can say that contractions are created out of two words that have been shortened. Think of the word, ‘he’ll’. It is a contraction by combining the pronoun ‘he’ and the verb ‘will’. Here, the contraction omits two letters – ‘w’ and ‘i’. The apostrophe replaces and sits in place of the missing letters.
When do we use contractions?
We use contractions in both speech and writing. Contractions are quite common in verbal communication. Sometimes, we don’t even pronounce them correctly, but still, we understand them because we are habituated with their use.
In writing, however, contractions are generally avoided in formal write-ups. You won’t see the use of contractions in grammar in academic papers, for example. The reason behind this is to adhere to the tacit norms of professionalism. It is the same reason why contractions are common in informal writing. In an informal piece, you are not required to sound professional.
There is no limitation to space or strict guidelines that you need to follow. Thus, contractions are regularly used in advertising and marketing messages. Contractions in formal writing are acceptable in certain cases like while writing the footnotes or when you are using a direct quote from something or someone or if you’re referring to an idiom that contains a contraction.
Not only advertising, but contractions in grammar are also frequently used in literature, films, or TV shows. Characters are given a quirky touch, or at times, they are made fun of for being old-school if they do not use contractions in common parlance. Quite ironic, when you realize that contractions were very much in use throughout the Middle English period and the Early Modern English period. These included the likes of ‘tis’, t’was, th’art, n’art, etc., which are obsolete now and rarely used by people. Chaucer and Shakespeare employed them frequently in their writings.
What is the purpose of contractions in grammar?
Contractions in grammar add much-needed fluency in speech or writing. In writing, contractions make the piece less stodgy and enable a satisfying reading experience. It’s vital to assess your purpose and consider the audience before using contractions in your write-up. There is a direct relation between contractions with tone.
Contractions save time. It simplifies your text and makes it easy to read. So, even though, as discussed earlier, using contractions are not recommended in a formal writing assignment like business documentation or any form of official correspondence, no hard and fast rule exists that says you must do so. It’s up to your discretion whether you want to use it or not.
Contractions in grammar do make your text more accessible. People can relate to it more as the use of these shortened words make your text speak to your reader. That’s why writers implement the use of contractions when they pen dialogues for their characters. Thus, it allows a more intimate connection. When you don’t use contractions, your audience might feel that you are trying to stress some words.
Example – “I won’t go to the party as I don’t like their company.” This sentence has a lighter tone than “I will NOT go to the party as I do NOT like the company”. The stress on ‘not’ adds negative undertones.
Emphasizing ‘not’ might make you sound too austere or stony. It can also send a signal to your listener that you might be a non-native speaker of the English language.
Contraction of ‘not’
The various forms of auxiliary verbs ‘be’, ‘do’, and ‘have’ use the contraction of the word ‘not’ as ‘n’t’. Let us look at the following examples.
i) Aren’t you supposed to carry the basket?
ii) Phil didn’t hit you on purpose.
iii) They haven’t arrived yet.
It is also applied to most of the modal verbs that provide us with commonly used contractions like ‘can’t’, ‘couldn’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘wouldn’t’, ‘shan’t’, ‘shouldn’t’, etc. ‘Mayn’t’, the contraction of ‘may not’ is not that common. ‘Shan’t’ is mostly used in the UK, but not common elsewhere.
Negative contractions in grammar
The contractions arising out of the combination of verb forms of ‘be’ and ‘not’ can be used in two ways. Let us look at these two examples stating the same thing.
i) He isn’t coming.
ii) He’s not coming.
We can use either sentence, but we cannot combine both and use them in one sentence. ‘He’s isn’t coming’ is wrong.
Therefore, in negative clauses, we have two options. One, we can use the ‘not’ (n’t) contraction, or combine the noun/pronoun and verb. Similarly, we can write ‘John isn’t’ or ‘John’s not’ in a sentence. ‘They are not’ becomes ‘they’re not’ or ‘they aren’t. Be careful with ‘I am not’. It can only be contracted to ‘I’m not. As mentioned above, ‘I amn’t’ is not used anymore.
In general, noun/pronoun + verb contractions are mostly used in cases of pronouns, whereas the negative contraction form of ‘n’t’ is more common after nouns. Take a look at the two examples below for clarification.
i) The party wasn’t fun.
ii) She’s not a good student.
‘Ain’t’ – the contentious contraction
While the use of words using the contracted form of ‘not’ is fairly common, one particular contraction in grammar is a subject of a lot of controversies. ‘Ain’t’, the contraction for am not, are not, is not, has not, and have not is colloquially used by several speakers in many places around the world. ‘Ain’t’ is also recognized by the Oxford Dictionary of English, but it comes with a caveat clarifying that the contraction’s usage in a formal context is not appreciated. It also states that ‘ain’t’ does not form part of standard English.
The use of ‘ain’t’ carries a stigma also, with some sections of the society construing such a speaker or writer as belonging to low status or lacking in education. That is strange as a few centuries ago, ‘ain’t’ was commonly used by the intellectual, upper-class people. Renowned poets and novelists like Lord Byron, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot, etc. availed of ‘ain’t’ in their works. ‘Can’t, the contracted form of am not is hardly used these days, however.
Contractions in grammar involving ‘is’ are considered to be ambiguous. In a speech, it is often confused with a plural form. Let us look at this example.
The boy’s crushed.
What you mean is that the boy is gravely disappointed and is in despair. People listening to you might think the ‘boy’s’ is a plural form and interpret the sentence as the boys, i.e. more than one boy, crushed or damaged some object.
Another confusion arises because of the nature of the apostrophe. Take a look at this example.
The man’s back.
You used the contraction ‘man’s’ for ‘man is’ to signify that the person has returned to his normal condition or position or regained his lost form. Some people, who are not familiar with contractions, on a cursory glance might feel that it is an incomplete sentence. The reason is that apostrophe is generally used to indicate possession or ownership. So, they might think the word ‘back’ to be the spine of the man and that you’re referring to something related to the rear surface of the man’s body.
The contraction ending in ‘’s’ can also represent ‘has’. Let us look at the following two examples.
i) Tom’s played his last game.
ii) Tom’s retiring today.
The first example means Tom has played his last game. The second one denotes that Tom is retiring today. Try to understand the context to recognize the usage of such contractions. If you read it aloud without the contraction, then you’ll comprehend the difference. Similarly, both ‘had’ and ‘would’ use the same contraction of ‘’d’ that may confuse readers for a moment.
i) I’d not go there.
ii) I’d been there.
If we expand the first sentence, it reads – I would not go there. The second one reads – I had been there. ‘I would been there‘ is a wrong sentence. So, if you feel a bit bewildered, the trick is to expand the sentence and read it.
Common mistakes with contractions
Contractions or Determiners
Some contractions in grammar befuddle the readers or listeners and are used wrongly by many people.
i) It’s and its
‘It’s’ is a contraction of ‘it is’. ‘Its’ is a determiner that is a possessive form of ‘it’. ‘Its’ stands for inanimate objects, places, or even animals.
ii) You’re and your
‘You’re’ is a contraction of ‘you are’. ‘Your’ is a determiner that is a possessive form of ‘you’.
iii) They’re and their
‘They’re’ is a contraction of ‘they are’. ‘Their’ is a determiner that is a possessive form of the pronoun ‘they’.
Let us analyze these sentences.
i) It’s raining!
i) Its raining!
Can you tell which is incorrect? Again, the tip is to expand the sentence. The first one can be expanded to ‘it is raining’ as it has an apostrophe. The second one doesn’t make sense. Always expand and see if the meaning is okay. If it doesn’t make sense, then it is wrong. Check these examples.
i) The book is better than it’s cover.
ii) The book is better than its cover.
Let’s expand the first sentence. It reads – ‘The book is better than it is cover’. Does it make sense? No! Then, the contraction is wrongly used here. The second sentence using the word ‘its’ to indicate the book is correct.
Won’t or Willn’t
The contraction ‘won’t’ is a little different than other contractions. People might get confused with the noun or the adjective ‘wont’ that means customary behaviour or doing something as a habit. The contraction ‘won’t’ means ‘will not’, even though the word ‘will’ is not reflected when it is shortened. The reason is that the contraction is derived from the old form of ‘woll not’. It was first contracted to ‘wonnot’ and then to ‘won’t’ in modern English.
Who’s or whose
A common mistake also happens with the homonyms ‘whose’ and ‘who’s’. ‘Who’s’ is a contraction of ‘who is’ or ‘who has’. ‘Whose’ is the possessive form of ‘who’. Check the two examples.
i) Who’s coming with me?
ii) Whose book is this?
The first sentence reads – Who is coming with me? The second sentence is referring to the person who owns the book.