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When to use contractions in your writing (and when you mustn’t or shouldn’t’ve)

There’s a lot of confusion about when to use contractions in copywriting and when not.

First of all, what is a contraction? It’s where a word has one or more letters missing, replaced by an inverted comma.  “Isn’t” instead of “Is not” or “I’ll” instead of “I will”.

It’s not slang, which is where the whole word is replaced by something much more informal. For example “dosh” or “dough” instead of “money”.

Some people can get very bothered about using contractions, but they simply exist to make writing and speech more fluent. The best rule of thumb for using them in writing is to simply ask yourself would you talk like that to the person in real life?

Not using them can make writing seem very stilted, overly formal and unbelievable.

For example, this sounds ok:

“I haven’t said anything because it’s the wrong time and it’s none of my business. It’s not that I couldn’t, I just shouldn’t, don’t you agree?”

However, take out the contractions and you sound like someone from Downton Abbey:

“I have not said anything because it is the wrong time and it is none of my business. It is not that I could not, I just should not, do you not agree?”

Some contractions, however, are less commonly used than others, and can sound a bit overly informal.

You also have to be careful of contractions which end up being ungrammatical. For example “here’s” for a plural word. If you’re not paying attention, the brain can trick you into thinking that it’s a plural. “Here’s the results” is wrong, because “results” are plural – it should be “here are the results”.

So here’s here are my guidelines:

Ok pretty much any time:

Aren’t, Can’t, Couldn’t, Didn’t, Don’t, Doesn’t, Hadn’t, Hasn’t, I’d, I’ll, It’ll, I’m, Isn’t, It’s, Shan’t, Shouldn’t, There’s, They’re, Wasn’t, We’re, Weren’t, What’s, You’ll, You’re.

(Watch out for “it’s” which can be either a contraction with an apostrophe or a possessive without one – “Poor dog – it’s hurt its paw.”)

Save these contractions for informal writing:

Could’ve, How’ll, Might’ve, Must’ve, Should’ve, What’re, When’ll, Where’d, Where’ll, Why’d.

For other contractions, it depends on the circumstance; ask yourself if you would use them in the situation where you’re talking face to face with your target audience.

Mind you, there are other words that sound like contractions but aren’t, and these do veer towards the slang: Wanna, Lemme, Gotta, Kinda etc. These are for very informal writing only.

Finally, bear in mind that contractions can be confusing to someone whose first language isn’t English, so if your audience are non native speakers, keep them to a minimum.

To see some examples of effective use of contractions, please take a look at some of my examples of long copy – in brochures, newsletters and direct response, or in this overseas copywriting case study

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