What are Contractions?
Contractions are words formed by combining two words into one word. During the combination process, one or more letters are omitted. The omitted letters are replaced by an apostrophe.
Contractions are acceptably used in informal use, such as in conversations, and informal texts, such as novels, and newspapers.
Examples of Contractions
We are =We’re
‘Was’ is rarely used in a contraction like ‘is’ and ‘has’ are, as ‘was’ is past tense, and it is difficult for speakers to communicate that they are not speaking about the present, but instead are speaking about something that happened in the past.
Will not = Won’t, not willn’t
I could ≠ I’d
I should ≠ I’d
I did ≠ I’d
The last three must be written out in full.
‘I’d’ means ‘I would’ or ‘I had’.
‘Had’ and ‘would’ are easily used with the plural pronoun ‘they’, but there are no ‘-d’ words that can be used with ‘they’ that would mean something in the future. This can lead to confusion over which tense is meant, as in the case of ‘was’, ‘has’, and ‘is’.
Common Problems for L2 Learners
Some problems that L2 learners might have with contractions stem from confusion between contractions and similar sounding possessive pronouns.
They are = They’re ≠ Their
It has/is = It’s ≠ Its
Who has/is = Who’s ≠ Whose
You are = You’re ≠ Your
Possessive nouns may be also confused with contractions of pronouns and is/has because it is impossible to determine what these following examples are (contraction or possessive) when they are out of context, in either written or spoken texts.
Contraction or Possessive?
Word As a Contraction As a Possessive
Professor My professor‘s nice. My professor‘s coat is brown
Dog His dog‘s playful. That is her dog‘s bone.
Phone The phone‘s ringing. His phone‘s ring is tinny.
Blank Each blank’s empty. That blank’s answer is illegible.
Contraction, Possessive or Plural?
The above words can also sound like plurals. Here are some examples:
Professors teach in colleges.
Dogs often bark at night.
Phones come in many styles.
Blanks should have one-word answers.
Problems in Spoken English
In spoken English, many native speakers contract three words instead of only two. This is not considered to be proper when using written English. Some examples are:
Would not have becomes Wouldn’t’ve
Should not have becomes Shouldn’t’ve
These contractions are sometimes later spelled incorrectly, when used in a written text.
Wouldn’t’ve should not become Wouldn’t of
Shouldn’t’ve should not become Shouldn’t of
This changing of ‘have’ to ‘of’ is a common mistake of native English speakers because ‘of’ sounds very similar to ‘-‘ve’ in spoken English.
Pointing out that ‘have’ is the plural verb of ‘has’ (we have and she has) will remind students that if the contraction’s ‘-‘ve’ could be substituted with a ‘-‘s’ (from ‘has’) then it should not be written with an ‘of’.
The bane of many English teachers, ‘ain’t’, has recently obtained some acceptance by many linguists, in that it is recognized as being commonly used in English-speaking societies.
‘Ain’t’ stands in for the following contractions in very informal (usually spoken) English:
am not : are not : is not
have not : has not
The only one above that does not have a real contraction form is ‘am not’. The rest have their own contractions.
“ain’t.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2008. Merriam-Webster Online. 10 December 2008
Glazier, Diane Ferster. The Least You Should Know About English Writing Skills. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Harcourt: Brace University Publishers, 1994, 27.
Sebrank, Patrick, and Verne Meyer. Basic English Revisited: A Student Handbook. Publisher and Date Unknown, 34-35.