What’s the rule?

Is there a rule about when you can use contractions in English? Yes, there’s. And I’ve just broken it. You probably know that native English speakers use contractions all the time. We do it to shorten words, because we’re a lazy bunch.

It’s really important that learners of English are familiar with contractions so that you can understand native speakers. Plus, one way that even really good learners of English give themselves away as not being a native speaker is by not using contractions – that’s a tip for all you budding spies out there.

English contractions in use

We usually contract auxiliary verbs, and we put an apostrophe where the letters have been missed out.

First, let’s have a look at some contractions. ‘I am’ becomes ‘I’m’ in the hands of a native speaker; ‘you will’ becomes ‘you’ll’; ‘he has not’ becomes ‘he hasn’t’; and ‘do we not?’ becomes ‘don’t we?’.

Click here for a much longer list of commonly used contractions in English. It’s important to note that we can sometimes choose between the contractions we use.

For example: ‘he is not happy’ can be ‘he’s not happy’ or ‘he isn’t happy’, with no change in meaning. But, we don’t use double contractions: ‘he’sn’t happy’ makes English speakers very unhappy. And, one more note, in questions, ‘am not’ is contracted to ‘aren’t’, as in ‘Aren’t I learning something useful today?’.

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Getting the audience right

Contractions are used a lot in spoken English, but whether you use them in written English depends on your audience and the type of work you’re producing.

In formal writing, such as a business report or an academic research paper, contractions are not appropriate. In less formal writing, like a magazine article for teenagers or this very blog, contractions are fine. They make the writing seem friendlier and more accessible, don’t they?

Another rule to note is the one I broke in the first paragraph: ‘Yes, there’s.’ We don’t use affirmative contractions at the end of sentences. So, no ‘I’m cleverer than you’re’, or ‘Charles Darwin had a better beard than I’ve.’

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Connotations and emphasis in English

Native speakers sometimes choose not to use contractions; this is deliberate, and changes the connotation of the sentence.

There’s a difference between, ‘I’m not tired’ and ‘I am not tired.’ The first is a simple statement; the second is emphatic: you’re a kid who doesn’t want to go to bed despite your parents’ protestations.

How does ‘I don’t want to go’, versus ‘I do not want to go,’ sound to you? There are some very informal contractions in English which don’t involve apostrophes and just see English speakers mashing words together. We gotta keep you on your toes. Did you catch that one?

Some of the most common ones are here, with their meaning in “real” English.

‘Gimme a chance – (give me)

‘Do you wanna pint?’ Or just, ‘wanna pint?’ – (want a) 

‘I kinda like it’ – (kind of)

‘Just lemme get some rest, will you?’ – (let me)

‘Whatcha want for lunch?’ – (what do you)

‘Innit lovely today?’ – (Isn’t it)

‘I’m gonna scream if you don’t stop soon.’ – (going to)

You can even put more than one of these contractions into a sentence.

‘Whatcha gonna do?’ or, ‘I kinda don’t wanna go’. Oh yes, we do that. Never, never use these in writing (unless it’s a text message to your English friend who you want to impress).

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There are so many more (which you can check out here), but I don’t wanna overload you. So I’m just gonna finish up here, and say that using a contraction in your speech is a great way to sound like more like a native speaker, innit?

Now what?

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