Before I get started, what are these pesky things?
Basically, contractions, sometimes called ‘short forms’, commonly combine a pronoun or noun and a verb. We use contractions (I’m, we’re, they’ll) all the time, mostly in speech, and we do it without thinking. It is something children absorb through social interaction as they grow, and makes conversation flow.
Contractions with I, you, he, she, it, we, and they:
’m = am (I’m)
’re = are (you’re, we’re, they’re)
’s = is and has (he’s, she’s, it’s)
’ve = have (’ve, you’ve, we’ve, they’ve)
’ll = will (I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, it’ll, we’ll, they’ll)
’d = had and would (I’d, you’d, he’d, she’d, it’d, we’d, they’d)
Contractions with auxiliary verb and not:
aren’t = are not (we aren’t, you aren’t)
can’t = cannot
couldn’t = could not
didn’t = did not (I didn’t, they didn’t)
hasn’t = has not
haven’t = have not
isn’t = is not (she isn’t, it isn’t)
mustn’t = must not
shan’t = shall not
shouldn’t = should not
wasn’t = was not
weren’t = were not
won’t = will not
wouldn’t = would not
Contractions can also occur after nouns, names, here, there and now and question words:
Mike’ll be happy = Mike will be happy
Here’s your bag = Here is your bag
There’s your wallet = There is your wallet
That’s your choice = That is your choice
Some contractions, such as gonna and wanna don’t have an apostrophe. Of course, there are hundreds of contractions employed in the English language. With that out of the way, when to use and when not to use.
Use contractions in informal writing, particularly in dialogue. It makes reading easier and natural. That said, don’t overuse! By reading your dialogue out loud, your ear will pick up clumsy sentence construction and inappropriate use of contractions. Write dialogue like you would speak! Easy to say, but many writers struggle with dialogue, which makes life difficult for them. They are a tool writers should employ to enrich their writing.
When not to use the little suckers? Generally, avoid contractions in formal writing, such as business letters, essays, resumes, technical papers, and research papers. Avoid contractions in all academic writing, unless you are directly quoting someone, or it is in a reference passage that contains contractions.
The one pothole or speedbump writers stumble over is whether to use contractions in narrative or prose. There does not appear to be a hard and fast rule for this, but generally, writers should avoid using contractions in narrative. Sometimes, though, employing a contraction can add zest to the sentence and convey meaning much better. Mostly, I would say, don’t. However, if you want to use contractions in narrative, use them sparingly! The bottom line? Narrative writing should be clear, natural-sounding, and easy to follow. If an odd contraction sprinkled here and there does that, then go for it. If in doubt, don’t.