Episode 260: January 27, 2011
A listener named Alex asked, “What’s the history of the contraction in English usage? I just heard an interview with the Coen brothers about the movie True Grit. They pointed out that they were at pains to avoid the use of contractions for an authentic 1860s Western American setting.”
The Coen brothers did say something like this. In a Newsweek interview, they were asked, “Did people actually not talk with contractions at that time?,” and they answered, “We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.”
The podcast edition of this article was sponsored by Grammarly.com, the world’s most accurate grammar checker. Instantly proofread your text for the proper use of over 150 grammatical rules at www.Grammarly.com.
The History of Contractions
Unfortunately, the Coen brothers were misinformed. Mark Liberman of the linguistics blog Language Log found that the original True Grit novel by Charles Portis contained both contracted and uncontracted forms. For comparison, however, Liberman looked at two other novels, including Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and found that those novels were more likely to include contractions than True Grit, so there really is some contraction avoidance in the novel True Grit. Maybe Portis wrote that way for purposes of characterization, Liberman suggests. He also quoted a paper in the Journal of English Linguistics on the history of contractions with “not.” It said that they first appeared in writing at the beginning of the 17th century, increased during the 18th, and were more or less accepted in the 19th.
In fact, there were even contractions before the 1600s, but at that time they usually weren’t indicated with an apostrophe, because the apostrophe was still a recent invention. Going back more than a thousand years, Old English had a class of contracted verbs. For example, the verb seon, “to see,” was a contraction of the earlier seohan. So contractions are not a recent development in English.
When to Use Contractions
Even so, Alex’s question is a good excuse to talk about how to use contractions again. Here’s a quick review of what we’ve said about contractions in other episodes.
In episode 201, we covered that most contentious of contractions, “ain’t.” Our advice was
In business, scholarly, and other formal writings, omit “ain’t,” unless it’s used in direct quotation, and never go around saying it in general conversation unless it’s part of a joke or well-known saying. In dialogue or to convey a vernacular tone in prose, use it with discretion. Treat it like spicy mustard; don’t make a whole sandwich from it.
But why did “ain’t,” a potentially useful contraction that fills the gap where we could use a contraction of “am not,” come to be so disrespected? In Origins of the Specious, Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman wrote that “ain’t” was first used in place of both “am not” and “are not,” then for “is not,” and later, even for “has not” and “have not.” As O’Conner and Kellerman write: “‘[A]in’t’ claimed to have so many parents that it seemed illegitimate.”
In episode 168, we talked about respectable contractions that should nonetheless be used with care. Some are ambiguous. For example, when you read “the dog’s,” it might be a possessive, as in “the dog’s tail”; it might be a contraction of “the dog is”; or it might be a contraction of “the dog has.” Usually the rest of the sentence will make it clear which you mean, but not always, so it’s worth keeping the ambiguity in mind. For example, the sentence “I’d never run that fast” could mean “I had never run that fast” or “I would never run that fast.” Maybe the context will make it clear, but why not make it easier on the reader by writing out “I had” or “I would”?
Episode 168 also covered contractions with “have,” such as “would’ve,” “could’ve,” and “should’ve.” Whether you write these as contractions or as two words, they still sound much the same as in everyday speech, so the contractions don’t save you any syllables. For that reason, our advice is to avoid them. All the more so for awkward double contractions such as “I’d’ve” and “it’ll’ve.”
Many Style Guides Recommend Using Contractions
You don’t have to avoid contractions in all your writing. Many style guides even recommend using contractions. the Chicago Manual of Style says:
Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable. 
Brian Garner’s Modern American Usage advises:
The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed sincerity—not breeziness.
The federal government’s Plain Language website agrees with Garner, and adds:
“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best tool to do that is to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing helps them relate to your document.
Just Don’t Overdo It
So in short, use contractions in formal writing if it will sound stranger to avoid them than to use them. (If this advice sounds familiar, you might be remembering our episode on vulgar language, where we gave similar advice.) Of course, you don’t run the risk of offending your readers with contractions the way you would with swear words, but still, if you use any and all contractions just because you’re allowed to, you risk sounding awkward and distracting your readers, instead of making your writing easier to read—which was the whole point of using contractions in the first place!
This article was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded, and edited and read in the podcast by Mignon Fogarty, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.