Some years ago I wrote a book called “The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing.” In it I tried to get at some of the elements — other than content — that make strong writers’ prose distinctive and immediately identifiable: their stylistic fingerprint. To illustrate the general concept, I used the example of contractions. Consider two sentences: “I do not like green eggs and ham.” And “I don’t like green eggs and ham.” The meaning (obviously) is identical. But the sound, the opens in a new windowvoice, is quite different.
Most of us aren’t a Hemingway, or a Samuel Beckett, or a Dr. Seuss, and we shoot for a more or less transparent style — one that (as they say of good baseball umpires) is not noticed. And that extends to the use of contractions.
Of course, transparency means different things for different sorts of writing. In the depiction of speech, such as opens in a new windowdialogue in fiction and scripts or opens in a new windowquotations in journalism, readers expect a contraction to be used pretty much every time it’s an option because that is the way people talk. When I taught journalism, students would occasionally turn in an article with a line like, “‘I did not expect that to happen,’ Smith said.” I would comment: “Either Smith really said ‘didn’t’ or he speaks in an oddly stilted manner, in which case you should slip in a line such as, ‘Smith speaks like a character in a Damon Runyon story.’”
Song lyrics also need to be conversational; consider the titles of classic American popular songs like “I Won’t Dance,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”
Damon Runyon, whom I mentioned a few sentences back, was an early 20th-century New York writer whose stories were the basis of the classic musical “Guys and Dolls.” The hallmarks of his nontransparent style was that the gangsters and other Broadway denizens who narrated and peopled his stories, (A) embraced the present tense and (B) eschewed contractions, as if they were in a Dr. Seuss book. The first sentence of the collection “ opens in a new windowDamon Ruyon Omnibus” contains the line, “ordinarily I do not care for any part of lawyers.” The phrase “do not” appears more than 30 times in just the first two stories; the word “don’t” does not occur at all in the collection, which consists of three complete books.
Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, “True Grit,” is narrated by an old woman, Mattie Ross, remembering in the 1920s her adventures many years earlier. Both Mattie and the people she quotes usually avoid contractions. For example:
“She must have seen the dismay on my face for she added, ’It will be all right. Grandma Turner will not mind. She is used to doubling up. She will not even know you are there, sweet.’”
The characters in opens in a new windowthe Coen brothers’ 2010 movie version of the novel generally don’t use contractions, either. Ethan Coen said in an interview, “We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.” But as Mark Liberman demonstrated on opens in a new windowLanguage Log, the Coens were told wrong. Liberman searched Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” (1876) and found “58 instances of ‘won’t,’ and just one of ‘will not’ — in the author’s preface. … There are 223 instances of ‘don’t,’ against just one instance of ‘do not.’”
Contractions are also the default in emails and other informal, conversational writing. In prose that’s directed at a general audience, the expectation is that they will be used judiciously. In his book “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser counseled, “ … trust your ear and your instincts. … Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions like ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re [I see what you did there, Mr. Zinsser] writing.”
Even following that advice, there is a lot of room for opens in a new windowleeway. For two books I have on my Kindle—“Unbroken,” by the outstanding popular historian and journalist Laura Hillenbrand, and “These Truths,” by Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian writing for a general audience—I calculated the percentage of times each writer used, and didn’t use the common contractions “wasn’t” and “didn’t.” Not surprisingly (considering the writers’ respective background and audience) Hillenbrand went with the contraction 87% of the time, Lepore less than 40.
Contractions are frequently, usually, or almost always absent in four types of prose.
1. The first is purely scholarly writing. A post on the American Psychological Association’s style opens in a new windowblog instructs writers to “avoid contractions.” Exceptions are direct quotations or when “making an off-the-cuff or informal remark within an otherwise formal paper.”
2. You will generally also not find contractions in formal business writing — especially, as Erin Wright points out on her blog, in “instructions that can impact safety and security: ‘Do not’ heat this metal container in the microwave.’ (Instead of ‘Don’t heat this … ’) ‘Passengers ‘ opens in a new windowcannot’ leave their seats until the ride comes to a complete stop.’ (Instead of ‘Passengers can’t leave … ’)”
3. In legal writing, a number of judges use contractions in rulings, but the general sense is that they should be avoided in briefs. On the Lawyerist blog, Matthew Salzwedel quotes the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia as calling contractions “marketplace” vulgarisms and warning lawyers that judges might view them as “an affront to the dignity of the court. … And those judges who don’t take offense will not understand your brief, or vote for your case, one whit more readily.” (Salzwedel notes, “Perhaps only Justice Scalia can get away with using a contraction — ‘don’t’— when instructing lawyers not to use contractions such as ‘don’t.’”)
4. The fourth contraction-free zone might be surprising. It’s newspaper journalism, especially as practiced in “The New York Times.” The “Times” style guide instructs, “In straightforward news copy, spell out expressions like ‘’is not,’ ‘has not,’ ‘have not,’ ‘do not,’ ‘are not,’ ‘will not,’ etc.” And sure enough, opens in a new windowthe lead story on the paper’s website as I write sidesteps contractions 12 times, including three times in these two sentences:
“The White House did not invite to the briefing Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, who has come under fire from the president and his team. Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, was not in the room, either.” (Emphasis added.)
The only contractions that appear are in quotations.
I see that in this post, I have chosen contractions six times and avoided them six. How’s that for transparency?
And this is Mignon: I’ll add that I’m sure that I contracted some of Ben’s non-contractions because I do it unconsciously as I’m reading scripts, so that’s another level of transparency.