While an undergrad at Eastern, I took a class called “Writing About Controversies.” Our first assignment was to write an essay challenging conventional wisdom. Dr. Arrington—the best writing teacher I’ve ever had and the instructor of this particular course—showed us an example from his oeuvre called “In Praise of Contractions: Madam Grammar Vs. Dame Rhetoric.”
In one corner you had Madam Grammar—conservative, critical, nose haughtily and perpetually in the air. She would never use contractions—especially in writing!—due to fear of perceived impropriety and would scoff at anyone who did. In the other corner was Dame Rhetoric—relaxed, approachable, inclusive. Someone who’d contract readily and frequently because, after all, the whole point of writing is to communicate effectively.
And Dr. Arrington wasn’t alone. I didn’t have a single instructor in the English department—or any department, really—who objected to contractions. On the contrary, they were encouraged—so much so that I even used them in my master’s thesis.
So you can imagine my surprise when I came to Plante Moran and practice staff began editing away my contractions. Take this recent example: “I know one area where Mindy and I disagree is on the use of contractions. She put them in, and I have taken them out. The article may be more readable with contractions but more business professional without them; this is one of the few lessons I remember from my business writing professor in college.”
Sigh. And he didn’t even contract in his explanation about the contractions in the email! Why so formal, PMer?
One of my favorite exchanges about contractions occurred years ago while I was working with Jerry, a tax partner, on the firm’s year-end tax guide. Jerry, unsurprisingly, was not a fan. “When I read a contraction, I ascribe a southern drawl to the writing,” he explained. So to Jerry, a contraction in a tax article conjures up images of Larry the Cable Guy doing tax returns. (Possible new firm tagline: “Plante Moran. We get ‘er done.”) On the other hand, when I read articles without contractions, I find the formality off-putting. They sound robotic. Read the quote from the fourth paragraph again. To me, he sounds like Spock from “Star Trek.” He might as well add, “I find human illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”
So who’s right? Well, let’s consult the Chicago manual of style, which has this to say: “A complete avoidance of contractions is common only in the most formal writing (think wedding invitations, or speeches before the queen). Even scholarly books freely use contractions in sentences that would sound stuffy and pompous otherwise.” Or, as Stephen King once wrote, “Language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes.”
But notice that Mr. King chose not to contract there—because “does not” emphasizes his point in a way that “doesn’t” cannot.
So my final point is this: there’s always room for compromise. While we may not choose to contract in every instance, we shouldn’t be afraid of contractions either. Contractions have personality; they humanize us and make us easier to understand. And at the end of the day, our goal is to write for our audience—to write for our readers. I know what my preference is. What’s yours?
Word of the Week: Oeuvre
Song of the Week: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” by Lisa Stansfield
Jerry Jonckheere says
Mindy, that was actually one of MY favorite English/grammar discussions, too. Editing the Tax Guide (while I know it sounds boring) has been a very enlightening experience. Perhaps someday we’ll hear about the “Battle of the Commas”?