When to Use (and Not Use) Contractions in English
Contractions, which are words in which some letters or sounds are omitted (e.g., don’t for do not), are common in speech and informal usage but generally avoided in formal writing.
- Informal: We don’t know what happened.
- Formal: We do not have sufficient information yet to form a hypothesis.
Contractions are often used and completely acceptable in everyday speech.
- I’m happy to help.
- She’s here.
- I don’t know.
- What’s that?
Only if you want to stress a certain word would you not use a standard contraction in speech and informal usage.
- You do not want to get involved in this.
The use of do not instead of the contraction don’t helps stress the adverb not.
In informal writing
In writing, contractions convey an informal tone and replace talking to the reader. They sound normal and natural in creative writing and personal communication.
- I’m on my way.
- That’s fine. Don’t worry.
- It’s all right.
- Sorry I couldn’t take your call.
- Maya knew she shouldn’t answer, but she did.
In ad copy, marketing slogans, and other signage, contractions can help save space and make your message sound conversational and friendly.
- Because you’re worth it. (L’Oreal)
- Let’s go places. (Toyota)
- There are some things money can’t buy; for everything else, there’s MasterCard. (Mastercard)
In creative writing as well, contractions, which are common in speech, can make dialogue sound more natural.
- “Now you said you’d do it, now let’s see you do it.”
“Don’t you crowd me now; you better look out.”
“Well, you said you’d do it—why don’t you do it?”— Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
In formal texts
Avoid using contractions in academic and other formal writing. Using the complete instead of contracted form lends an appropriate air of formality to the document.
- Informal: We haven’t accounted for changes in pressure in this study.
Formal: We have not accounted for changes in pressure in this study.
- Informal: We couldn’t collect sufficient real-world data.
Formal: We could not collect sufficient real-world data.
- Informal: It’s important to account for bias.
Formal: It is important to account for bias.
- Informal: We haven’t reviewed the financial statements of the subsidiaries yet.
Formal: We have not reviewed the financial statements of the subsidiaries yet.
Avoid using contractions in cover letters, personal statements, academic papers, business proposals, and legal documents.
- Informal: I’d appreciate the opportunity to discuss this further with you.
Formal: I would appreciate the opportunity to discuss this further with you.
- Informal: I’m hardworking and self-motivated.
Formal: I am hardworking and self-motivated.
In negative questions
An exception is negative questions, in which contractions are used in both formal and informal usage.
Should notwe wait until morning?“Should not we wait until morning?” would sound odd and archaic, even in formal usage.
Is notthe sample ready yet?
Again, you may use the word not separately if you want to stress it.
- Unstressed not: Aren’t you listening?
Stressed not: Are you not listening?But not “Are not you listening?”
Finally, always use the contracted instead of full form in negative question tags.
- Hurry up, won’t you?
Not “Hurry up, will not you?”
I’m here, aren’t I?
- Poco said he’d call, didn’t he?
- We should call back, shouldn’t we?