How can words that native English speakers say every day not be real words in most dictionaries? Forms like “hafta,” “kinda,” and “whatcha” tend not to be entries in dictionaries, but native speakers know what they mean. In fact, it would be a challenge to find an American who doesn’t pronounce “have to,” “kind of,” and “what are you” in this way daily. If you’re learning English, should you avoid these informal contractions? If you’re a native speaker, are there appropriate and inappropriate times to use such words, if they are in fact real words?
What Is a Contraction?
First, let’s review what a contraction is. Hint: I just said one in the last sentence: let’s. This is a contraction of the words “let us.” Other common examples are “it’s” instead of “it is,” “can’t” instead of “cannot,” and “haven’t” instead of “have not.” In other words, a contraction is a shortened form of two or more words. Contractions are considered informal, and so it is not appropriate to use them in formal essays or other official writing. That means, avoid contractions in school essays and in cover letters when you are applying for a job. On the other hand, contractions are fine to use in emails to friends and family or in other informal writing situations.
Examples of Informal Contractions
Contractions like “won’t” and “couldn’t” are undisputedly real words. But a bunch of other contractions trigger the squiggly lines that word-processing programs put under problematic usage. The computer does not like any of the informal contractions discussed in this episode. “Kinda,” “wanna,” “whatcha,” “hafta,” “gimme,” “lemme,” and “gonna” are just a few examples of this type of contraction. All are marked as incorrect. Sorry, computer program, these are real things that people say. But, computer program, you are right that these words should, for the most part, not be written. More on that in a bit.
Dictionaries Weigh In
What do both a hard-copy dictionary and an online dictionary say about these words? The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a 2,074-page book sitting on the shelf, contains no entries for “kinda,” “whatcha,” “hafta,” or “lemme.” There are entries for three of them: “wanna” , “gimme” , and “gonna” , and these entries state that they’re informal contractions of “want to,” “give me,” and “going to,” respectively. The online version of the Oxford Dictionary does have entries for these other four words. According to the website, the word “kinda” has been around since the early 20th century. The same online dictionary calls “whatcha” a “nonstandard contraction.” “Hafta,” on the other hand, is called “informal.” The online dictionary has no problem with “lemme,” either, which is just noted as a contraction. So, if contractions are by definition informal, you could say that informal contractions are extra informal, and they’re spoken more often than they are written. You won’t get any points for these words if you try to play them in Scrabble or Words with Friends either.
If you are learning English and are in an English-speaking country, you’ll hear informal contractions everywhere. Those who have learned a foreign language in a classroom and then have gone to a country where that language is spoken might have had the experience mentioned by Mr. John R. Rickford in the front matter of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. This professor of linguistics at Stanford writes, “We master textbook Spanish and land in Mexico to encounter a welter of words, pronunciations, and grammatical twists we never even dreamed existed” . And so it is with English, as exemplified by these informal contractions. Even if someone is reading a piece of text out loud and the writing contains a phrase like “going to” or “kind of,” it is highly likely that the native speaker will pronounce these as “gonna” and “kinda.” It is also highly likely that no English as a Second Language textbook lists these as valid and common words. When foreign-language learners can use contractions like these, they’ll sound more natural than if they stiffly enunciate every syllable. So, ESL students, try saying, “I’m gonna go out to the movies” instead of “I am going to go out to the movies.”
As for native speakers, it would be impossible to stop saying things like “hafta” and “lemme” in our day-to-day lives. There’s no need for us to curb that tendency, unless we are speaking in a formal situation. On the other hand, there aren’t too many occasions when writing those words is a good idea. One acceptable place to throw in a “gimme” or a “wanna” is in a text or an email to a friend. The only other good place to write that sort of informal contraction is if you are writing a novel in which you are trying to capture the real way that your characters speak. Mark Twain was a master. Just open up “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and you will see all sorts of interesting phrases and contractions that aren’t in the dictionary. An example quoted in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, from “Huck Finn,” is “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” .
Well, we hafta go now. Hope you kinda liked this episode. Lemme know if you have any questions.
That segment was written by Bonnie Mills, author of “The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier” who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 1938.
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 743.
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. 756.
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p. xxiii.
 Bartlett, John. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 16th Edition. Little, Brown & Company, 1992, p. 526.
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