When is it Okay to Use Contractions in Formal Writing?

Teacher teaching contractionsMany people avoid using contractions in formal writing because they are under the impression that contractions are only appropriate for casual writing and that they constitute non-standard grammar. Are they really representative of sloppy writing? When is it okay to use contractions?

Many automatic grammar-checking software packages will produce an error if you use a contraction within your written document and will instruct you to correct it. But does the use of a contraction really constitute a mistake? In most cases, no.

Occasions When it is Okay to Use Contractions in Formal Writing

  • To communicate a message in an easy tone and style. Sometimes you may want to structure a formal communication, informally. For example, if you are writing a formal letter to a customer, you may want the customer to feel that you are talking directly to them. Contractions make the writing much more personal and friendly.
  • When writing dialogue, it is generally more authentic if you use contractions. People use contractions all the time in their everyday speech and it is important that you replicate that in your writing. So, for example, if you are reproducing a customer testimonial, it is often useful to use contractions.


What do the Style Guides Say?

  • The Gregg Reference Manual: “Contractions of verb phrases are commonly used in business communications where the writer is striving for an easy, colloquial tone. In formal writing, contractions are not used (except for o’clock….)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t explicitly pass judgment on the appropriateness of contractions, but it gives many examples of them. It says, for example, that “Don’t you want more?” sounds more natural than “Do not you want more?”
  • The Associated Press Stylebook: “Contractions reflect informal speech and writing. . . . Avoid excessive use of contractions.”
  • Even the U.S. government advocates using contractions to make writing easier to read. The Government Style Manual instructs you to “Write as you talk” to increase the ease with which your writing can be read and understood. One of the best methods of achieving this is through the use of contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing can help them relate to your message.


When it is not Okay to use Contractions

  • Do not use contractions in documents that serve very formal purposes, such as legal contracts, submissions to professional publications.
  • Try to minimize the use of contractions in documents that will be read by people who speak English as a foreign language because they can confuse non-native speakers.


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