Contractions in Writing: When To Use and When To Avoid These Conversational Words

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If you've ever written an essay or research paper, you've probably been told not to use contractions. However, what about contractions in writing? When you're writing a book, can you use them? Does this differ in academic writing and scholarly writing?

contractions in writing

Contractions are a type of informal writing, and yet, they sound far more natural in conversations or narrative driving a fiction book.

But first, what are contractions? Is there a contractions list?

Knowing how to use contractions is an important grammar rule. And when you know how to use them properly—and when to ignore them—you'll probably write a better story.

What Are Contractions? Contractions Definition

A contraction is the shortened form of a word. It combines two words—almost always a noun with a verb—linked with an apostrophe into one, shortened word.

Examples of contractions include it's, wasn't, haven't, and hundreds more (see our contractions list below).

We use contractions every day, usually without noticing them. Why? Because contractions are simple, easier to pronounce, and part of our vernacular.

However, if you think contractions are a modern invention, proof that the English language is going to the dogs, you couldn't be more wrong.

A Brief History of Contractions

Contractions have been around for a very long time—in English, as far back as the creation of the language itself, when the Angles and Saxons invaded the British Isles and mixed the local Celtic dialects with their Germanic languages (the Germans love contractions and compound words).

Since then, the list of contractions continued to expand, usually brought by invaders or imported during cultural movements. For a full history of contractions, read this excellent article.

Should Contractions Be Used in Writing?

You might think contractions can't be used in the canons of literature, but this conversational approach appears in literary masterpieces, from Beowulf to Moby Dick to Great Expectations to Ulysses to modern bestsellers and more (see examples below).

Even the Chicago Manual of Style recommends the use of contractions in writing, saying, “Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions” (5.103).

Most English teachers say contractions should never be used in writing, at least not in formal writing (see here, here, and here).

However, the reality is that contractions have been used in English writing for over 1,400 years. And yes, they're even used in scholarly articles (it's about 2,750,000 times, can't about 3,290,000 times, don't about 4,270,000 times).

What are some of the most common contractions? I'm glad you asked:

Top 50 Contractions List

Unsure about which contractions you're using or should be using or what they mean? To help your narrative carry a conversational tone, you can use the list of commonly used contractions below, complete with the full phrase, and an example sentence.

ContractionFull PhraseExample Sentence
I'mI amI'm going to the store.
I'llI willI’ll get bread.
You'reYou areYou’re crazy to go to the store when it’s snowing.
You'llYou willYou’ll regret it if the roads close.
He'sHe isHe’s gone. Good luck!
She'sShe isShe's going to the store for bread too.
It'sIt isIt’s snowing and there is only one loaf of bread left.
We'reWe areWe’re going to starve.
We'llWe willWe’ll have to share.
They'reThey areOh no! They’re closing the roads.
They'llThey willThey’ll be closed until tomorrow.
That'sThat isThat’s a problem since we’re stuck at the store.
Who'sWho isWho’s going to help us get home?
What'sWhat isWhat's your name?
When'sWhen isWhen’s the last time you’ve gotten stuck in a store all night?
Where'sWhere isWhere’s that bread?
Why'sWhy isWhy’s this happening to us?
How'sHow isHow’s the cold floor feeling?
Here'sHere isHere’s my coat in case your cold?
There'sThere isThere’s a pack of cards.
Aren'tAre notAren't you going to play cards with me?
Can'tCan notI can't believe you won again.
Couldn'tCould notCouldn’t you at least let me win once?
Shouldn'tShould notShouldn't the roads be open soon?
Wouldn'tWould notI wouldn’t have guessed getting stuck at a store in a blizzard could be fun.
Hasn'tHas notYes, this hasn’t been as bad as I feared, to be honest.
Haven'tHave notI haven’t had this much fun in a long time.
Don'tDo notDon’t get all sappy on me now.
Wasn'tWas notI wasn’t.
Weren'tWere notWeren’t you?
He'dHe hadHe’d thought they were having fun, but now he wasn’t sure.
She'dShe hadShe’d thought they were having fun, but she worried about getting his hopes up.
It'dIt wouldIt’d be nice if they opened the roads soon.
We’dWe wouldWe’d actually be able to get some sleep tonight.
They'dThey wouldThey’d text us if they were open.
Who'dWho wouldWho’d have thought it would take this long?
What'dWhat didWhat’d you do with that bread?
When'dWhen didWhen’d it get so cold in here?
Where'dWhere didWhere’d that draft come from?
Why'dWhy didWhy’d you share your coat if you were so cold?
How'dHow didHow’d you think I feel if you were cold and I was warm?
Let'sLet usHere, let’s share.
That'dThat wouldThat’d be nice actually.
I'dI wouldHey, I’d like to maybe see you again after this is all over.
You'dYou wouldI worry you’d be disappointed.
I'veI haveIt’s up to you, but I’ve got tickets to the concert tomorrow night—or tonight now, I guess.
You'veYou haveYou’ve got tickets?
We'veWe haveFine, we’ve got a plan.
They'veThey haveThey’ve dozed off.
Isn’tWho haveIsn’t this a surprise.

3 Word Contractions List

The following three-word-contractions aren't as common (at least in writing), but they are awesome:

  • He'd've = He would have
  • They'd've = They would have
  • You'd've = You would have
  • We'd've = We would have
  • I'd've = I would have
  • She'd've = She would have
  • Might not have = Mightn't've
  • Should not have = Shouldn't've

While experts often discourage the use of contractions in formal communication, you'll probably find contractions of verb phrases used in business or casual conversations—or scenes like these in books—since contractions make for an easier, more casual tone.

Sentences like these sound more natural, and therefore more personal. Like everyday speech.

Let's look at some examples of contractions in literature.

Examples of Contractions Used in Classic Literature

Contractions can be frequently found in literature, both modern and classic.

Here's a list of contractions we found in the literary canon.

Please note that while some say contractions should only be used in dialogue, these examples of contractions were found both in dialogue and normal prose.

From Herman Melville's Moby Dick, Chapter Three:

It's the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It's the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It's a blasted heath.—It's a Hyperborean winter scene.—It's the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time.

From the fourth paragraph of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens:

I earnestly expressed my hope that he wouldn't, and held tighter to the tombstone on which he had put me; partly, to keep myself upon it; partly, to keep myself from crying.

From Benjamin Franklin's memoir, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

He reply'd,* that if I made that kind offer for Christ's sake, I should not miss of a reward. And I returned, “Don't let me be mistaken; it was not for Christ's sake, but for your sake.”

From The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde:

It's absurd to talk of the ignorance of youth.

Ulysses by James Joyce:

Twelve. I'm thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death's number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn't in the chapel, that I'll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.

*Anyone know what this is a contraction of, if it is a contraction at all? I found this by chance and am not familiar with it.

Examples of Contractions in Contemporary Literature

Contemporary literature all but throws out the so-called “rule” not to use contractions in writing. Here are several examples of the way many bestselling and prize-winning authors use contractions.

The first two sentences of Neil Gaiman's American Gods:

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough, and looked don’t-[mess]-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time.

From the first chapter of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss:

They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote had never interjected anything of his own before. Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so.

From Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall:

There’s no accounting, in retrospect, for this lapse in the Harris tradition.

From The Dinner by Herman Koch**:

Unhappiness can’t stand silence—especially not the uneasy silence that settles in when it is all alone.

From the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon:

Over the years I’d surrendered many vices, among them whiskey, cigarettes, and the various non-Newtonian drugs…

**This is an English translation from the original Dutch, but since Dutch is a Germanic language, I think it's safe to assume the original uses contractions.

Should YOU Use Contractions In Your Writing?

If you're like me, you learned not to use contractions in school. In fact, I spoke with a friend who was trained as an elementary school English teacher, and she was taught to actively discourage students from writing with contractions.

Personally, I think the no contractions rule is outdated and actually ignorant of the historical foundations of the English language (again, contractions were in Beowulf, people!).

I will say that if you're writing formal essays in high school, college, and grad school, you should probably avoid contractions, if only so you don't ruin your grade.

However, if you're writing something creative, and especially if you're writing dialogue, you need to be using contractions.

Real people use them, and so should you.

More Contractions Resources

How about you? Do you think contractions should be used in writing? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section.


To get a sense of how weird it is to not use contractions, write a scene using the following prompt without using a single contraction.

Prompt: A couple is on their first date at a trendy restaurant. One is allergic to shellfish, the other can't stand brussel sprouts.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, post your contraction-less practice in the practice box below. And if you post, be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.

Good luck!

Enter your practice here:

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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  1. Kevin Garcia

    He reply’d,— I’m pretty sure that is just how they wrote back then. Back in the day S’s used to look like f’s without the line crossing the middle of it. So who knows. English is weird. <3

      • Warjna Waleska Kaztjmjr

        Yes, Joe. By your definition of contractions (a combination of two words) this is not one. It is, however, a contraction in the sense of the apostrophe serving in place of dropped letters. Spelling in Franklin’s time was still in flux; this is the word we would now spell as “replied.”

  2. Reagan Colbert

    I’ve always loved contractions. It makes your writing look more human, not too formal for regular people. I use them all the time in my novel, especially in dialogue (It sounds so weird without them!) But what about in articles and blog posts? Do contractions belong there, or should that be more formal?
    “Whatsoever ye do, do unto the glory of God”,
    Reagan Colbert

    • Joe Bunting

      I think they absolutely belong, Reagan. As you can see, I use them frequently in my posts. I also use them when writing for newspapers and magazines. The only time I would consider avoiding them is if I had to write a scholarly paper or went back in time to write an essay for school (and even then, I’d probably still use them for the former).

      • Reagan Colbert

        That’s a relief! I’ve used them in my articles (I think I even used them in the guest post I sent in!) I’m glad it’s alright! Thanks, Joe!

    • Cynthia Franks

      I use them in dialogue all the time, but it can get confusing in articles and blog posts. I guess clarity is the rule.

  3. Michelle James

    When contractions aren’t used, writing sounds stiff and unnatural. It’s a pet peeve of mine. People, please use contractions!

    • Cynthia Franks

      I disagree. If it is written well, I do not notice if there are or aren’t contractions. I know every editor I have ever worked with has removed them.

  4. leejennatyler

    It’s great that you found Boz, a.k.a. Charles Dickens using contractions, Joe. He was paid by the word. Great resources here!

    • Joe Bunting

      I thought of that, too, Lee! I figured he would have avoided them to make a little more $.

      • Cynthia Franks

        It is possible that a modern printer added the contractions and they are not what Dicken’s actually wrote. You would need to read a first edition to see if that was how it was originally printed and an actual manuscript to see if it is what Dicken’s wrote. Never assume.

  5. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    I don’t see as using contractions is any better or worse than not using contractions. And it’s been long enough since I was in a high school English or grammar class that I don’t honestly remember what the rules were!

    I find myself writing without contractions in first drafts of almost everything (blog posts, journals, novels). Sometimes I convert to contractions during the editing phase and sometimes I don’t. It depends entirely on the purpose for the post or article or the person who is telling the story if it’s a novel. Some of my characters are very formal and would never think of using a contraction!

    • Joe Bunting

      I think that’s great, Carrie. It all depends on the character and you’re own voice! I think it’s fascinating that you write completely without them in first drafts, though. Impressive!

      • Carrie Lynn Lewis

        I suppose that is my natural writing voice. I do hear complete words (not contractions) when I’m writing. Usually there’s emphasis on one or the other in my mind. “That IS” in the sentence above, for example.

        Besides, I’m old enough to find comfort in non-contractions, odd though that may sound.

  6. Jackie Murphey

    Thank you! Yes, I used them all through my book even though Word 2010 and 2013 didn’t like them at all. I first only used them in quotes. They didn’t care for those either, so I began using them as I would talk naturally. Others liked it and I continued the use. I was taught in both high school and college not to use them. However, in doing research for my dissertation, there were contractions. I only used them in quotes then.

    Thanks for this article. Yep, you made my day.

    • Joe Bunting

      Very interesting that you found contractions in scholarly research! Isn’t that interesting that they say don’t use them in formal, APA writing and yet they’re clearly used by the pros.

  7. Sandra Stiles

    I asked for student beta readers for my first book. I had used no contractions except in dialogue. My students all said it sounded like a teacher wrote it, stiff. contractions are goo.

    • Joe Bunting

      Contractions are good indeed! Thank you Sandra!

  8. Warjna Waleska Kaztjmjr

    My thought on contractions is, we use them in everyday speech, why should we not use them in everyday writing? That said, I also feel that if we are using formal writing, such as official correspondence, legal documents and the like, then perhaps contractions should be avoided. In dissertations or other submissions for grades, one should follow the standards of whatever form (APA, etc.) required by the school, and in addition it might be best to cater (pander?) to the taste of the particular professor who will be doing the grading.
    As for my own writing (a series of SciFi novels), it always depends on the particular character. My main character, Ari, is a professor of ancient languages who grew up in rural Florida, so her usage depends on whether her speech is in a more or less formal setting. My aliens (also human, but transported to another planet millennia ago) in the first novel tend to be of the upper class, and so their speech is a little more educated and formal. Thus, I rarely use contractions for them, as that automatically sets them somewhat apart and points up the fact that they are not from the same background and culture as my MCs. My second MC, Danny, grew up on the streets in Brooklyn, so his speech patterns differ wildly from Ari’s; much less formal, and full of contractions and street slang. He was reasonably well educated before being out on the streets, though, and in later books he makes the effort to use correct English, although under stress he tends to revert to street-speak. So it all depends on the character, and on the situation as well.

    • Joe Bunting

      I definitely agree. You have to match your use of contractions to your own voice and the voice of your characters. Thanks for the great discussion!

  9. Katina Vaselopulos

    Good article, Joe!
    I love contractions! They make words flow better. I am careful not to over use them, though.

    • Joe Bunting

      That’s great, Katina. Thank you for your comment!

  10. Davidh Digman

    Reply’d is the contracted form of ‘replied’ from Early Modern English (which is sometimes called ‘Elizabethan’ or even ‘Shakespearian English’).

    Many contractions are now considered archaic, but to be found in poetry and older literature.

    I researched older Englishes whilst I was developing a short comedy-horror story about a travelling troupe of dead writers.

    • Joe Bunting

      Very interesting David! It seems so strange that they would contract a single word in a way that wasn’t really more efficient (it’s the same number of characters if you count the apostrophe). Why do you think they did it? Anyway thank you for the info!

      Also that would be a fun story to research!

      • Davidh Digman

        That story was a hoot to both research and to write.

        There was actually a fad about apostrophes back then.

        Although I have never found anything to confirm this idea, I suspect that the Elizabethan rage for contractions was motivated in part by the need to fit in so much information on promotional posters for theatrical performances. This was the time of the major reforms of theatrical performance law in Britain, and the theatre was a boon industry.

        Although there is not much of a savings to be found when contracting ‘replied’ (or ‘replyed’, one of many alternative spellings which were acceptable back then) by the time you add the plethora of other word contractions that were available back then, the space savings could be considerable.

        Contractions were, at the time, thought to give the impression (pronounced im-preh-shee-on, by the way — many words were also pronounced differently in Early Modern English) of sophi-is-tick-ay-shee-on and wit.

        Th’re b’ n’ccountin’ f’r taste, Sirrah!

        • Davidh Digman

          And let us not forget the Elizabethan belief that “more is more”.

          They loved to pump up their posters with florid prose and grandiose word counts.

          To an Elizabethan, many contracted words were to be preferred to fewer full-length words.

          Contractions made the fashionably high word counts viable.

        • Joe Bunting

          Ha! So interesting. THANKS David.

        • Cynthia Franks

          It had to do the number of letters a printer owed. The less ruptable printers had lower quality letters and fewer of them so they could only use 1, 2, 3, 4 letter A’s on a single page. In old fashioned type, the ‘ used as much space as a letter unless it was fudged by the printer, which also happened to save space.

          • Davidh Digman

            There is that as well! I forgot the old typographer’s cheats!

          • Cynthia Franks

            My blog post on this should be out on Wednesday. I don’t go to much in depth on this, but maybe a few articles on it would be fun. I used to a typography nut. I worked as a typesetter for a few years and got hooked.

          • Davidh Digman

            Consider me part of your waiting fanbase!

      • Mirel

        May be the same number of characters, but an apostrophe takes up less space than an e… Also, let’s not forget that language itself goes through fads. Sometimes certain things are “in” and then things change…

      • Warjna Waleska Kaztjmjr

        Joe, back in “the day,” Shakespearian English tended to sound each syllable. For example, we still use the archaic but still trendy spelling “shoppe” for boutique type stores. Back in Chaucer’s day, it would have been a two syllable word, pronounced shop-peh. So Replied would have been a three syllable word, which also points up Franklin’s spelling: it would have been replyed — re-ply-ed. Using the apostrophe removes the third syllable by elision, giving us our modern-day “replied.”

        • Joe Bunting

          Wow. I did not know that! Fascinating. Thanks Warjna!

      • Cynthia Franks

        It had to do with the number of each letter contained in a typeset. Remember the type was manually set per page and they would sometimes run out of the most frequently used letters like e and I. It wasn’t they could run to the letter store and buy more.

  11. Gary G Little

    Contractions can be used to identify individuals. Whose talking, Data or Lore? If a contraction is used, it’s Lore because Data did not use contractions. I have also noted some cultures ted to avoid contractions when speaking English.

  12. Paul Highum

    Great blog post. I love that Beowulf used contractions. Just to avoid any unnecessary confusion: he’d is also he had, and she’d is also she had. I think—depending on one’s writing style—those are probably used more for “had” than “would” in most fiction. But I certainly could be wrong.

    • Cynthia Franks

      Here is another reason to be very careful when if using contractions in fiction.

  13. Glynis Jolly

    I gauge the use of contractions by what tone I want to come through to the reader. Example: I don’t want that. – The tone is casual and relaxed. — I do not want that. — The tone is pointed, maybe even angry depending on the sentences around it.

    • Joe Bunting

      Totally, Glynis. It affects where the emphasis is placed in that example.

  14. Jim Woods

    It depends on the piece. And you really have to be consistent too. In some cases–especially nonfiction–it can appear lazy. In fiction it almost always works well.

    • Joe Bunting

      Give me an example of where it appears lazy. I think that’s the myth we repeat, but I don’t think it plays out in real writing.

      • Cynthia Franks

        I must dig up that eBook I was asked to review. It used so many contractions it was hard to follow some paragraphs.

      • Jim Woods

        Good point. I’m sure I can find some examples, but the problem alone wouldn’t be contractions–rather it would be the overall writing. (One of the main issues lack of clarity.) The overuse of contractions would just be a symptom of the bigger problem.

  15. Cynthia Franks

    Joe, very good information on contractions and great discussion on this subject. However, I believe you missed an interesting part of the history of contractions. They were employed by printers because they only had so many vowels to set a page so they would replace vowels with apostrophes. The contraction ‘reply’d’ is most likely replied only the typesetter ran out of vowels,that is, if you were looking at an accurate reproduction.

    What you do not touch on is the reason for the no contraction rule in schools, it is because students will use them out of laziness to boost word count while doing less writing. Their use in fiction should be a considered choice and not simply because it is the way people talk or just because. I will cover this more in my own blog post.

    In the days of Dickens, Franklin, Shakespeare , contractions were a function of the constraints of typesetting and because people have always used them in speech, actors especially. If you look at your examples, the contractions are used to create a tone. If the tone of your work is conversational, use them, but do it sparingly.

    My last point and one that causes the most problems are the use of negative contractions like Don’t and Can’t. Using these causes sentences to be written in a negative construction and that can be confusing. Along with that be very careful of the ‘ve contractions because they put you in the past perfect tense that leads down the road to wordiness and awkward paragraphs.

    It boils down to this, make it choice not a habit and know what the contraction is that you are using. As with any writing rule, you have decide when it applies and when throw it out the window.

    • Saunved Mutalik

      Excellent analysis.
      I believe the greatest problem with rules in schools is that nobody takes the time to explain why they exist!

  16. Jayleen D Collopy

    I am not certain, but I believe the use of “reply’d” was to simply eliminate writing out the entire word, “replied.” I have noticed in some writings, the use of contractions being implemented to show how we pronounce words, sorta speak; used in dialogue mostly. To make it a bit more informal perhaps?

  17. Ian McGregor

    Very sorry but you are TOTALLY wrong.

    Contractions should NEVER be used in WRITING to imitate speech UNLESS it is NARRATIVE used in a novel.

    Whilst we use contractions in our speech the use of contractions in writing actually makes it MORE DIFFICULT to read documents concisely.

    Using contractions in writing has ALWAYS been regarded as sloppy or simply lazy as is the use of slang or expletives.

    The continual use of expletives shows a TOTAL disrespect for other people.

    Hence the NO CONTRACTIONS rule is the ultimate in 100% correct usage.

    However there are some 147 different forms of the English language globally including very many different dialects.

    The USA also uses different spellings (e.g. honour versus honor) and different wording.

    e.g. UK English calls a car luggage compartment a boot whereas US English calls the luggage compartment a trunk. Similarly bonnet versus hood.

    There are many other examples.

    Ian McGregor

    • Gregor McIan

      What’s even MORE wrong is people using ANNOYING capitalization, thus PATRONIZING the readers and implying their inability to discern emphasis, while at the same time UNDERMINING their own ability to write comprehensible text. Not to mention that it’s typographically WRONG to misuse capitalization for emphasizing.

      This is ESPECIALLY true if said person claims superiority by having the ONE AND ONLY 100% correct answer to a literary discussion, yet is UNABLE to use a god damn comma.

      I SUGGEST you pay a visit to your nearest ironmonger and have him give you an introduction to POTS and KETTLES.

      Gregor McIan

      • ChopMyChicken

        Gregor McIan (I see what you did there), your reply made me smile, so thanks. I totally agree with you.

        Ian McGregor sounds like a pompous nitwit. If he ever wrote for me, I’d definitely insert contractions into all his work. If he complained, he’d simply be dropped. His loss.

  18. cheeta_bhi_peeta_hai

    You didn’t mention usage of He’d as he had



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