When is the proper time to use a contraction? Which styles of papers should have them? As a matter of fact, what’s a contraction, exactly?

I've noticed that Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader has asked numerous contestants to find contractions within sentences. It's very puzzling to see adults struggling with this simple part of speech. It might be beneficial to become familiar with these words as they play a huge part in everyday language (and in essay writing).

A contraction is a simplified version of one or two words by omission of one or more letters and the use of an apostrophe. The most noted example of confusion when it comes to using a contraction can be found in the following two words: your, and you're.

Example: Your dog just ate my food, and now you're going to have to buy another meal for me.

You're is a contraction. It is the combination of you and are. We say it all the time, but when it's written, it's usually spelled incorrectly. Your is an adjective describing a noun (Whose dog is it? It's your dog, not you're dog). If you're ever unsure of which spelling is correct, try saying the sentence using you are in place of the word each time. If it fits, then use the contraction you're. If not, use the adjective your.

Example: You are dog just ate my food, and now you are going to have to buy another meal for me.

It doesn't fit in the first clause, but it does in the second.

Using Contractions in Essays

Contractions are seen in very informal writing styles. This blog, for instance, is very informal. I can freely use contractions because this writing should flow easily, as if I were having a conversation with you. If you haven't noticed, I have been using contractions in this entire blog already. They're written in green. The problem with many contractions that are used in everyday language is that many people don't know how to spell them, or they use them incorrectly.

Example: I could've taken the bus, but I decided to walk instead.

Could've is a contraction of could and have.

Incorrect: I could of taken the bus, but I decided to walk instead.

When writing a research paper or any other formal paper, make sure there are no contractions in the essay. I'd also recommend not using contractions in resumes, cover letters, or school application personal statements. Usually, it won't be necessary to come up with a new word to use. Simply take the apostrophe out of the contraction and use the words separately.

Example (informal writing): Today, the medical staff told Carrie that she'll be discharged soon.

Example (formal writing): Today, the medical staff told Carrie that she will be discharged soon.

The second example shows that by taking the contraction out of the sentence, I've made it more professional in appearance and made it sound more professional to read. Some contractions won't be appropriate to separate, but the majority of them will; use your own judgment. For example, the contractions o'clock and ma'am are better understood as contractions.

Be sure to read the sentence thoroughly before assuming that it will make sense without the contraction.

Example: Didn't Mark say he would take Sarah to the movies?

Incorrect: Did not Mark say he would take Sarah to the movies?

Although the contraction is separated, the second sentence is not written properly. When you are writing a negative question (using the word not), then the verb goes before the subject and not goes after the subject.

Example: Did Mark not say he would take Sarah to the movies?

This would be the correct way to write the sentence in a formal essay.

One last point that I'd like to make is that the contraction it's does not show possession of an object. With most other nouns, the use of an apostrophe and the letter s shows possession.

Examples: John's cat; the baby's toy; my car's engine

However, possessive pronouns do not have apostrophes.

Examples: that lamp is hers, its eyes were open

For a list of contractions and the words from which they are formed, visit Enchanted Learning.

Consult my blog about commonly misspelled words for more information on words like your and you're.

For more help on possessive pronouns and apostrophes, visit Purdue OWL.

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