Monday, September 6, 2010

Contractions – Go with the Flow

Part of the real skill behind good writing is to make it look easy. And it looks easy when it flows off the tongue with a sweet sounding rhythm that’s effortless to understand. So what is one way we can achieve this flow?

We use contractions. A contraction is two words turned into one. For example: ‘can not’ becomes can’t; ‘do not’ becomes don’t; ‘you are’ becomes you’re.

Written contractions work because they reflect speech which is the most common way we communicate with each other. It’s a natural sound we hear every day and so we’re comfortable with the shortened rhythms. When we write like we speak, we give the reader a familiar ground to visit our stories. They aren’t distracted by the writing.

If we decide to write every word in full, then our writing begins to sound stilted. We force the readers to stumble or pause because it’s not a familiar rhythm. Because of this the piece often gains an air of pompousness.

If you don’t want a natural flow to your writing, or you want to achieve a certain level of formality, then go for it. The full words work well in any formal document. You could have a character who speaks without contractions, but they will sound robotic – much like Data in the Star Trek Next Gen series. Sometimes it works, but you’ll find mostly it doesn’t.

Do you use all the common contractions all of the time? Do you mix it up? Or do you think too many contractions make a piece too informal?

36 comments:

  1. Yes, "robotic" is the perfect word for the formality of not using contractions! I also totally agree that contractions definitely allow for more flow and more conversational prose.

    Not using contractions is also a great way to add emphasis, as in: "You do NOT speak to me like that."

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  2. Good point. I use them mostly in dialogue and often in my descriptions, but use the formal style when I want to emphasise a point. Eg:
    "I did! I did, I did." Shiela insisted. She did not.

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  3. Here's the contraction I do not (see how I did not contract for emphasis lol) like to see too much-- the 'd one. This is fairly new actually, you never used to see it and I think it was frowned on. But now with YA lit taking over the world, the 'd contraction is everywhere. When I'm editing, I take it out. Except in some dialogue where it fits. But definitely not in the narrative bits.

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  4. A few of my characters do speak in a more formal way, but even they use contractions. It IS possible to get away with some when you have a "pompous' character. For example, I always use "I don't understand" instead of "I do not understand," regardless of who's speaking.

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  5. Loveable_homebody, absolutely, great point. (I forgot to mention that). It's still not something you would use a lot though.

    Charmaine, again, great point. It becomes an emphasis because it breaks the usual pattern.

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  6. KarenG - Another great point. Language is something that evolves and in todays world it's becoming more and more popular to shorten/ contract words. The good thing is, there's not much call for 'd outside dialogue anyway (imo).

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  7. Amanda, 'don't' is so common that it's natural for even the most pompous of characters to use it :)

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  8. I use contractions most of the time in dialogue and a lot of the time in the narrative as well. I'm so NOT a formal person :)

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  9. Jemi, hehe, I love the way you put that.

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  10. I tend to mix it up. Some characters sound great contracting everything. Others who are more formal don't contract so much.
    Nice to meet you, thanks to Karen G!

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  11. Not something I've ever really thought about ...... until now. Thanks for an interesting, thought provoking piece.

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  12. Well I feel I am British so I follow RP and usually do not use contractions and back when I was working as a professor I was encouraging my students not to use contractions. Off course, in books, using contractions in dialogues helps make it more natural as you said.
    What do you think about using bad language in books? In my native language we do not use to many bad words in everyday speech (which does not mean we do not have a rich arsenal when swearing:) ) so I am always surprised when I see the F word all around in English books :))

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  13. For me, it depends on the character and the mood. Those learning English rarely use them and neither do those who are angry and trying to enunciate every word.

    CD

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  14. "Part of the real skill behind good writing is to make it look easy." Couldn't have said it better myself.

    I think it all depends on what I'm working on to whether or not I use them.

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  15. I'm all about contractions unless I want to emphasise a point. I agree - it sounds much more natural.

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  16. For some reason when I was younger I got it into my head that "real" writers never used contractions - thank goodness I know better now :-)

    Great to meet you at Karen G's BBQ!

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  17. Al, great to meet you too! And yep it's good to mix it up. Variety is a good thing when done with care.

    Petty, thanks

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  18. Dez - yep, I was always taught not to use them, but the language has changed a fair bit since then and its a whole lot more acceptable to contract. It's in some article guidelines too recocommending the writer to use contractions for non fiction.

    As for bad language, I personally don't need to be bombarded by f bombs in books. I guess I can be a bit of a snob in that respect. I can understand its use for certain horrible characters but I'm not in a hurry to read about those characters anyway. But that's just me.

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  19. Clarissa, yes! Another good point! Anger is a great example of not contracting your words. Nice one :)

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  20. Jen - in my teens I got sucked into writing because I thought it looked easy. By the time I realised it wasn't, it was too late for me. I was hooked ;)

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  21. Talli, when I first started writing articles I'd not contract and I'd read it out loud and wonder why my articles sounded so stiff ;)

    Deniz, I think that's what we were all taught in school -- Do not contract! lol. Times change. Language changes. Great to meet you!

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  22. Depends on the mood and tone of the story how often I used contractions. But, yes, I use them.

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  23. M Pax, definitely mood is an important factor to consider when using contractions.

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  24. Hi Lynda - I so agree. Contractions are great! I use more formal speech for a character I'm writing back in 500ad, but for current day, I def use contractions. Great post!

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  25. RaShelle, yes, the formality would work well for 500AD :)

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  26. for some reason, i thought this post was going to be about labor!!! :) jiminey, my brain is sleepy!

    i use contractions often, but if i want to make a point stick out i separate the words to slow down the flow of the narration or dialogue for the reader and draw their attention to the bit.

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  27. I keep it simple. I use contractions in dialogue, bur rarely if ever while narrating. that's my rule of thumg. I think it looks unprofessional to read contractions anywhere other than dialogue.

    Stephen Tremp

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  28. Good post, Lynda! Earlier I never used contractions, but my editor got me used to it. Now I just can't seem to write without them.

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  29. Aspiring, lol!! And yes, good place to not use contractions :)

    Stephen, when I was writing a lot of articles, many magazines stipulate that they WANT contractions because of the easier way it reads. But that's non-fiction.

    Rachna, hehe, times change. It's often a personal preference of a writer, but it's becoming more the norm.

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  30. Great post! I use contractions, but I mix it up depending on the character and audience. You're right about our writing sounding too stilted if we keep it formal all the time. :-)

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  31. It definitely depends on the tone I'm trying to achieve and the characters themselves. I don't have any set rules about contractions... though I find I do use them a lot.

    There is a more formal feel to non-contracted prose.

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  32. Amen, my sister from down under. I don't know how many times I've corrected this problem when beta-reading. It drives me nuts! Yes. I should not go out with Ted. He is a bad guy. Nooo! I shouldn't go out with Ted because he's a bad guy! Then again, I'm sort of attracted to the bad boys, but you get my drift.

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  33. Shannon, every rule about writing has an added amendment that can change depending on the feel we're after :)

    Perri, yep, I use them a lot too. It just feels more comfortable for the type of things I write :)

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  34. Samantha, lol, yep I get your drift :) And welcome :)

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  35. In my last wip, for some reason I missed making the "I'd" contraction. One agent had commented that my voice was slightly off but she couldn't figure out what it was. I never clued in what I had done . . . until my current wip. One of my crit partners pointed it out. Funny thing is I read my ms out loud (like you should), so I'm not sure why I didn't notice it. Maybe I was reading it as "I'd" instead of "I had".

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  36. Stina, it wouldn't surprise me if you were reading it as "I'd". We naturally contract our words...even when we read.

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