Contractions: Use or avoid in formal writing?

Are contractions good or bad in formal writing?

I’ve had several clients whose style guidelines don’t allow the use of contractions. For my part, I didn’t believe in contractions at the start of my investment writing career. That’s what I’d learned in my high school English classes. I remember “fixing” all of the contractions in a portfolio manager’s commentary when I worked at Batterymarch Financial Management. However, I am now a fan of contractions.

Style guides for contractions

I found a statement against avoiding contractions in Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Benjamin Dreyer says of the rule against contractions:

This may be a fine rule to observe if you learned English on your native Mars, but there’s not a goshdarn thing wrong with “don’t,” “can’t,” “wouldn’t,” and all the rest of them that people naturally use, and without them many a piece would turn out stilted and would turn out stilted and wooden… Contractions are why God invented the apostrophe, so make good use of both.

Bryan Garner agrees in Garner’s Modern American Usage. He says of contractions, “…why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing?”

Garner also says, “The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed sincerity—not breeziness.” He cites several authorities on writing to support his opinion.

Style guides against contractions

My old printed copy of The Associated Press Style Guide says, “Avoid excessive use of contractions. Contractions listed in the dictionary are acceptable, however, in informal contexts where they reflect the way a phrase commonly appears in speech or writing.”

The Grammar Bible says, “Contractions may be appropriate and expeditious in casual writing, but they are to be avoided in more formal documents.”

Both Dreyer and Garner warn against more casual contractions, such as “should’ve,” which Garner calls a “casualism.”

What do YOU think about contractions?

I’m sure you use contractions in your daily speech, and probably even in your blog posts. But what about a white paper?

Please answer this one-question poll. I’ll report on the answers in a future edition of my newsletter.

 

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MISTAKE MONDAY for August 12: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment.

This mistake is too common.

MM it's its

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

NOTE: As of September, Mistake Monday will only be published once a month, on the last Monday of the month (for example, Monday, Sept. 30). I hope that you’ll continue to test your proofreading skills on Mistake Mondays.

MISTAKE MONDAY for July 8: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. This is another one that spell-checking software can’t catch.

MM misplaced quotes

 

 

 

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for June 24: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. This is a classic mistake. When will people learn?

MM it's its 2

 

 

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for June 10: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. I’m not sure about all of the questions posed by this example.

MM is are

 

 

 

 

 

 

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for June 3: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. If proofreaders use this technique, they’d catch more errors like this.

MM is are
I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

MISTAKE MONDAY for May 20: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment. I think if you read this text out loud, you’ll hear the problem.

MM do does

 

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

Limit your use of the progressive tense

I’m not a fan of adding -ing to verbs, as I’ve said in “The ‘Be” test for writers.” However, I couldn’t tell you why it was wrong until I read Cut It Out: 10 Simple Steps for Tight Writing and Better Sentences by Laura Swart.

Using the progressive tense

Here’s how Swart explains the use of what she identifies as the “progressive tense.”

…unless something is happening right now or over a period of time, use the simple present and simple past tenses (typically verbs ending in s and ed, respectively).

There’s some ambiguity in how to apply that rule. That’s why I like that Swart’s book provides multiple examples of when to use or omit the progressive tense.

My progressive preference

However, I use a simpler rule. Does the sentence make sense if I don’t attach -ing to the verb? If so, I omit it. Shorter sentences are easier for readers to absorb.

Don’t confuse with gerunds

What appears to be the progressive tense may actually be a gerund. That’s a noun formed by adding -ing to a verb. Grammarbook uses the example of “Walking is great exercise.”

Grammarbook also says, “It is helpful to recognize gerunds because if a noun or pronoun precedes a gerund, it is usually best to use the possessive form of that noun or pronoun.”

 

Disclosure:  If you click on an Amazon link in this post and then buy something, I will receive a small commission. I link only to books in which I find some value for my blog’s readers.

MISTAKE MONDAY for April 8: Can YOU spot what’s wrong?

Can you spot what’s wrong in the image below? Please post your answer as a comment.

If you find that you’ve made a mistake like this, you may develop a headache, too.

MM get gets

I post these challenges to raise awareness of the importance of proofreading.

“All” versus “all of”

I’m a little obsessive about proper usage, but there are plenty of holes in my knowledge of writing style. Thus, when I saw “all our funds,” it drove me to the internet to see if that should read “all of our funds.” My first observation: this seems to be a question mainly for English language learners. There don’t appear to be many established grammar or style gurus writing online about this topic.

Use “all of” only with pronouns, says Grammar Monster

Grammar Monster says to use “all” before any noun except a pronoun. For example, “all of us,” but “all the cheese.” In a sidebar, it says that “all of” is an indefinite pronoun, but “all” is an “indefinite adjective.” How’s that for a bit of grammar trivia?

Garner’s agrees

Although I follow Grammar Monster on Twitter, the site isn’t one of my regular go-to resources. So, I delved into my trusty Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner says that “all” is more formal than “all of.” He says one should use “all of” only before a pronoun—agreeing with Grammar Monster—or when a possessive noun follows, as in “Beyond all of Jones’ ego-stroking maneuvers.”

That’s all for now on my latest research.