Readers Ask! The Hired Pens Answers!

contractions21A few weeks ago, I posted a status update on my Facebook page asking for blog topics. I got a lot of responses, and over the next month or so I’ll attempt to answer them all. Well, maybe except for Mike Flint’s question about why there are so many songs about rainbows. (Why indeed?)

Today’s question comes from my fabulously lovely and talented PR friend, Genevieve Crain, who writes:

“Are contractions considered okay in formal writing? It seems really stiff to write using non-contracted words … Is that even a term?”

Thanks for the question, Genevieve, and let me answer the first one last. Is “non-contracted” even a word? I asked my business partner Dan, who knows everything about grammar. His response: “Umm …,” followed by a long pause, since clearly he didn’t know the answer. Then, “Don’t you have work you should be doing?” (He always gets defensive when his grammatical prowess is called into question.)

So let’s go back to the first part of your question instead: “Are contractions okay in formal writing?”

  • If it’s for a legal document, contractions are not appropriate. Oh no, ma’am, they are not. (Note that I didn’t even feel comfortable using contractions in this bullet.)
  • If it’s copy for a stiff, super boring website, you’d better spell it out. Unsure of what might qualify as stiff and super boring? It probably has a .gov extension. As Obama’s National Word Czar, I assure you I am working on this problem.
  • If you want to sound like a pompous jerk or a high school student. Not that the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. Fact: People who are insecure about their writing skills — or just want to show off — often write in overly inflated, formal language.

Okay, I’m being a little harsh here. It’s not like being formal is always such a bad thing. In fact, when in doubt, it’s probably better to err on the side of formality.

But in most cases, “conversational writing,” which includes the use of contractions, is the preferred style for business communications. I actually wrote a whole article about this; that’s how much I care, Genevieve! Since we don’t always have time to read every article that comes our way, conversational writing can be summed up like this: It’s writing that sounds like it comes from a real person, not a robot.

So I say when it comes to contractions, use away. But be consistent. For example, if you choose to use contractions, use them throughout your entire document or at least the entire sentence. Don’t write, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you even asked, are you not?” Instead: “I’ll bet you’re sorry you even asked, aren’t you?”

I hope you’re not sorry, Genevieve.

Share this post