An English contraction occurs when two words combine to make one word—words like “don’t,” “I’ll,” and “let’s.” Contractions are nothing new. In fact, they have been commonly used since 7th century Old English when writers still wrote using the runic alphabet.
Contractions represent a more efficient way to write and to speak. They allow us to convey our thoughts in fewer words. This is helpful considering we live in an era of text messages and 140-character Twitter updates. And, in days long past, before printing presses, English contractions saved writers the pain of writing out every single letter of every single word (Those quill pens must have been a real pain in the hand!).
While editing ESL papers at Kibin, I have found that many ESL writers are uncomfortable with the concept of English contractions. These writers misuse them, use them too liberally, or avoid them altogether.
In this post, I want to focus on the misuse of contractions. I’m going to teach you the fundamentals of English contractions, discuss which English contractions you should never use and why, and give you a heads-up on some of the more common informal contractions (But, don’t use them in your next English assignment…or else!).
The Important Apostrophe
First, let’s talk about how exactly you can create a single word out of two words. It involves using an apostrophe. An apostrophe is the punctuation mark found at the top of a letter. I’ve circled the apostrophe in red in the word “it’s” below:
For example, the contracted form of “do not” becomes “don’t.” As you can see, the apostrophe stands in for the “o” in “not.”
Similarly, the contracted form of “he will” becomes “he’ll.” In this contraction, the apostrophe stands in for the “wi” in “will.”
And “they would” becomes “they’d.” The apostrophe does the big job of standing in for “woul” in this contraction.
Warning! You Can’t Contract Just Any Word
Now that you know how to use the apostrophe to create English contractions, don’t get too carried away. You can’t just go in and contract any two words in the English language. The words you can contract are pretty much set in stone (and I’ll be going deeper into that in a future post).
Wouldn’t it be fun if you could, though? I might write something like, “Y’can’t just go’n an’contract jus’any’f t’words i’the Eng’language.” But, I won’t, because then I would sound drunk, which I’m not.
While most writers don’t try to contract every single word in the English language, I often see some commonly misused English contractions. With that in mind, here are three English contractions that you should never use:
A lot of ESL writers make the mistake of thinking that since you can contract “is not” and “are not” into “isn’t” and “aren’t,” you should similarly be able to contract “am not” into “amn’t.”
The truth is, there is no contraction for “am not,” and “amn’t” is not a recognized word…anymore.
Yes, I said “anymore” because apparently “amn’t” and its cousin “an’t” were commonly used in the English language sometime in the 1600s. And, surprisingly, “amn’t” is still used in Ireland and Scotland (no wonder those dialects are so difficult to understand for those accustomed to U.S. English).
Today, in U.S. English, you can still find some communities that use a distant cousin of “am’t.” That word is “ain’t.”
And, even though Christina Aguilera uses “ain’t” (incorrectly, I might add) in her lyrics, “ain’t” is considered highly informal and should not be used in most writing. Check out this great article for more information on “amn’t,” “an’t,” and “ain’t.”
As tempting as it may be to use the apostrophe rule to contract “will not” into “willn’t” or even “win’t,” you shouldn’t.
The contraction of “will not” is a weird exception to the apostrophe rule, as it becomes “won’t.”
So, why is it an exception to the rule? The answer to this riddle comes from Old English habits. The word “will” has gone through quite the language evolution, including many spelling changes, one of which was “woll.” A sensible contraction of “woll” could indeed be “won’t.”
In addition, “willn’t” was an accepted form of this contraction for some time—even into the late 1800s. But, because the point of contractions is brevity, the ultimate favorite, which is still commonly used today, became “won’t.”
Read this post for more information about why “will not” is contracted as “won’t.”
You can contract “she has” and “she is” to make “she’s,” and you can contract “he has” and “he is” to make “he’s,” as well as “I am” to make “I’m,” and “I have” to make “I’ve.”
But, “I’s” is not a word.
I’m not sure why people use “I’s,” but I suspect it has something to do with misinterpreting the following two rules.
First of all, you can’t contract “I is” because “I is” has improper subject-verb agreement. “I” does not go with “is.” It’s just not right. The correct agreement is “I am,” so the correct contraction is “I’m.”
Second, and I think this is the more common problem, “I was” cannot be contracted into “I’s.” In English, you can’t contract verbs in simple past tense.
That being said, there are certain U.S. dialects where speakers use it as an informal contraction. “I’s gonna do it!” is an informal English contraction of the phrase “I was going to do it.”
Aside from these three contraction no-nos, there are some that are technically legal, but that you shouldn’t use anyway.
Watch Out for Contractions that Native English Speakers Don’t Commonly Use!
These six contractions are grammatically legal, but they are not commonly used in either speaking or writing.
- Where’d (where had)
- Why’d (why had)
- When’d (when had)
- Why’d (why would)
- What’d (what would)
- When’d (when would)
These six contractions are uncommon for a simple reason. U.S. English speakers prefer using them to express questions with the past tense form of “did,” like this:
- Where’d (where did)
- Why’d (why did)
- When’d (when did)
- Why’d (why did)
- What’d (what did)
- When’d (when did)
So, when you ask, “Where’d you go?” native English speakers will think you are asking, “Where did you go?” and not “Where would you go?” The answer to these two questions would be very, very different (“I went to school in Missouri, but I would prefer to go to Hawaii”).
By playing favorites, English speakers avoid a lot of confusion in communication. However, please note that these contractions with “did” are highly informal and should only be used in speaking and informal writing.
You may have noticed that native English speakers like to mush a lot of their words together in informal speaking and writing. Let’s review a few of these informal contractions now.
Informal English Contractions (or Words that English Likes to Throw at You to Keep You on Your Toes)
This list includes a selection of common informal contractions in the English language. These words aren’t even in the dictionary, and you’ll notice they don’t follow the rule of the apostrophe.
These informal words should never be used in academic or formal writing. The only time you might write them would be in a text or email message to a friend or in a fiction piece when you are trying to convey informality in your character’s dialogue.
Whatever you do, don’t use words like “lemme,” “gimme,” and “wanna” in your school writing or in a cover letter! They will get you nowhere fast.
Imagine writing a personal statement that said, “Please lemme into your school. I wanna attend. Also, please gimme a scholarship, so I can afford it.”
Hopefully, reading this sentence gives you an understanding of why using informal contractions can be a problem.
That said, because these informal contractions are so common in everyday speech, I felt you might benefit from getting acquainted with them. Check out this site for even more examples of informal contractions.
So, there you have it, English contractions to never use. Let me know if you have any comments or questions by leaving me a message in the comments section below.
If you enjoyed this lesson, you might also enjoy reading Definite and Indefinite Articles for ESL Writers.
As with all things you learn, the more you practice, the better you will become. If you need more help with contractions, I suggest trying this English contractions test. And, of course, if you need to be sure that you are using all the right contractions in your next writing project, our ESL editors are here to help!