Nathaniel Hale 1775

Contractions in Formal Writing

14 posts in this topic

A professor of mine recently told me that contractions should not be used in formal writing. Why? Such a prohibition seems pedantic at best, arbitrary at worst. Is there any reason for restricting the use of contractions?

Is shouldn't less clear than should not? Is can't less clear than can not? I do not think so. In fact it seems to be an improvement, at least in terms of economy.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A professor of mine recently told me that contractions should not be used in formal writing. Why? Such a prohibition seems pedantic at best, arbitrary at worst. Is there any reason for restricting the use of contractions?

Contractions are used all the time in spoken language, for many reasons. It's faster. "Can't" is one syllable and "cannot" is two. It is more informal and puts a listener at ease as if to say, "Relax, this is just a friendly chat with nothing earth-shaking at stake."

Formal written work is different. Speed of communication is not a concern. You want a reader to take all the time he needs to understand you, even re-reading parts, if necessary. You don't want him at ease; you want him in full focus. The use of more formal vocabulary and avoiding things unique spoken language such as contractions and slang, help to set a psycho-epistemological context for the reader that is more appropriate for, and prepares him for, abstract or difficult intellectual material.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Formal written work is different. Speed of communication is not a concern. You want a reader to take all the time he needs to understand you, even re-reading parts, if necessary. You don't want him at ease; you want him in full focus. The use of more formal vocabulary and avoiding things unique spoken language such as contractions and slang, help to set a psycho-epistemological context for the reader that is more appropriate for, and prepares him for, abstract or difficult intellectual material.

I understand why slang has no place in formal writing, but I still do not understand why the same is true of contractions. Slang is often ambiguous which can interfere with the reader's comprehension. I see no such quality in contractions. Is it merely the fact that most people associate contractions with informal language that makes it a hindrance to clarity? Or is it in the nature of contractions, as such?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A professor of mine recently told me that contractions should not be used in formal writing. Why? Such a prohibition seems pedantic at best, arbitrary at worst. Is there any reason for restricting the use of contractions?

Contractions are used all the time in spoken language, for many reasons. It's faster. "Can't" is one syllable and "cannot" is two. It is more informal and puts a listener at ease as if to say, "Relax, this is just a friendly chat with nothing earth-shaking at stake."

Formal written work is different. Speed of communication is not a concern. You want a reader to take all the time he needs to understand you, even re-reading parts, if necessary. You don't want him at ease; you want him in full focus. The use of more formal vocabulary and avoiding things unique spoken language such as contractions and slang, help to set a psycho-epistemological context for the reader that is more appropriate for, and prepares him for, abstract or difficult intellectual material.

What a fantastic answer. Presumably applying the same technique to speaking would help to set the same context? For speeches and whatnot?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I wonder, is "formal writing" inclusive of fiction? I wonder if what you have been taught by your professor might be taught in regards to fiction as well. I have noticed that when I am writing fiction, I don't use contractions except in dialogue.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Formal written work is different. Speed of communication is not a concern. You want a reader to take all the time he needs to understand you, even re-reading parts, if necessary. You don't want him at ease; you want him in full focus. The use of more formal vocabulary and avoiding things unique spoken language such as contractions and slang, help to set a psycho-epistemological context for the reader that is more appropriate for, and prepares him for, abstract or difficult intellectual material.

I understand why slang has no place in formal writing, but I still do not understand why the same is true of contractions. Slang is often ambiguous which can interfere with the reader's comprehension. I see no such quality in contractions. Is it merely the fact that most people associate contractions with informal language that makes it a hindrance to clarity? Or is it in the nature of contractions, as such?

I think that contractions are associated with spoken language. Written language has different requirements than spoken language. When doing technical writing, using contractions doesn't come across as clearly as using the two words. For one thing, the verb and its negation are combined into one concept in a contraction. For clarity and emphasis, writing 'not' after the verb focuses on the action that is negated and not to be performed by using two concepts.

For some more interesting differences, see this blog.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Presumably applying the same technique to speaking would help to set the same context? For speeches and whatnot?

Absolutely! In addition, a speaker can set his psycho-epistemological context in ways not available to a writer.

He can use body language (posture, hand gestures, etc.), pacing (pregnant pauses), and tone of voice. Observe the way many clergymen adopt a deep-voiced, slow-paced delivery to add "gravitas" to their message. (Rush Limbaugh parodies this in the delightfully bombastic way he intones "Talent ... on loan ... from Gawwwd!")

Preachers aren't the only ones with a unique speaking style. I've also noticed that many Old Left Socialist intellectuals, even if they were born and raised in Brooklyn, tend to speak with a British accent.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I understand why slang has no place in formal writing, but I still do not understand why the same is true of contractions. Slang is often ambiguous which can interfere with the reader's comprehension. I see no such quality in contractions.

Ambiguity is not the issue.

Is it merely the fact that most people associate contractions with informal language that makes it a hindrance to clarity? Or is it in the nature of contractions, as such?

Clarity is not the issue. The fact that most people associate contractions with informal language sets the wrong psycho-epistemological context for the reader and that makes it a hindrance to being taken seriously.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Clarity is not the issue. The fact that most people associate contractions with informal language sets the wrong psycho-epistemological context for the reader and that makes it a hindrance to being taken seriously.

Got it. Thanks for explaining. :wacko:

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Your professor is an ASS. I'd tell him so. And quit his course.

He sounds like the twit who came up with the similarly arbitrary rule: "Never start a sentence with the word 'And.'"

How about:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." ??

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Your professor is an ASS. I'd tell him so. And quit his course.

He sounds like the twit who came up with the similarly arbitrary rule: "Never start a sentence with the word 'And.'"

How about:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." ??

Any contractions in that document?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

As a context-free dictum, the rule is arbitrary. I agree with Betsy that contractions set a more informal tone, but I don't believe contractions in themselves cause the reader to judge content less seriously. Posters here use contractions all the time, and we get along just fine debating serious issues.

The context here is audience. If you're writing an email to a friend, it would not be appropriate to use formal language. Similarly, it's generally disrespectful to use familiar language with someone you don't know. It's interesting that other languages, like Spanish, actually have different forms of "you" based on who is being addressed.

In discussion and correspondence with people you know, it's fine to use contractions and even appropriate because it sets a friendly tone. In "formal" writing, which I take to mean writing either to total strangers or to a general audience, contractions are a little presumptuous.

Even then, it's appropriate to use contractions if you are quoting someone who used a contraction or if you are writing dialogue (such as in fiction). Never say never.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Your professor is an ASS. I'd tell him so. And quit his course.

He sounds like the twit who came up with the similarly arbitrary rule: "Never start a sentence with the word 'And.'"

How about:

"And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." ??

If I was that picky I would have quit every class I have ever taken. It's not as if she was criticizing me, she was just stating it generally to the whole class.

I always thought it would be a humorous thing, though I would never do it, to split all my infinitives, begin as many sentences as possible with the word And, use only contractions, and end as many sentences as possible in prepositions :wacko:.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites