Guide to Using English Contractions

contraction (noun) – from Latin contractus, past participle of contrahere
con- together
trahere – draw
'draw together'

A contraction, or short form, is an abbreviated form of a word or words, from which one or more letters have been left out and replaced by an apostrophe.

They're very common in conversational spoken English. For example, when speaking informally we usually say words such as ‘I am’ as ‘I'm’, ‘he is’ as ‘he’s’, ‘it is’ as ‘it's’, and ‘we will’ as ‘we'll’.

What about contractions in written English?

Informal writing is very much like a spoken conversation, you’re writing as you would speak, so contractions are also very common in informal written English such as personal letters, emails, postcards, and text messages to close friends and family.

Contractions can also be used in business correspondence such as letters, emails, and email newsletters, where you want to communicate with clients or customers in a friendly, conversational tone.

Blog posts are almost always written in an informal way, as are many longer online articles, and so contractions are common in both. Depending on your audience, website content such as Home and About pages are also usually written informally.

Contractions are common in fiction writing, both in dialogue and normal prose.

The playwright George Bernard Shaw famously didn’t use the apostrophe for contractions in his fiction writing, preferring to write ‘dont’ instead of ‘don’t’, ‘wouldnt’ instead of ‘wouldn’t’, ‘cant’ instead of ‘can’t’, and so on.

Equally famously, author Lewis Carroll took things to the other extreme with extra apostrophes; writing ‘ca’n’t’ instead of ‘can’t’, ‘sha’n’t’ instead of ‘shan’t’ (shall not), and so on!

Style guides and recommendations for the use of contractions in formal writing vary, but the general advice is that you shouldn’t use them. So, for example, instead of ‘it’s’, we should use ‘it is’, and instead of ‘didn’t’’, we should use ‘did not’.

However, there are varying degrees of formality, and contractions are increasingly accepted in formal writing because they make the writing more natural, and easier to read. Perhaps the best advice is to write in the style most appropriate to your specific audience, and in the style which is required or recommended by the context, profession, business, or institution you’re writing for.

Academic writing, which would normally be included under formal writing, does at times use a more informal tone which includes some contractions, for example in some course books and scholarly articles. But for university assignments and research papers you will almost certainly be required to write formally, using long rather than short forms of words. Of course, many other academic texts, technical writing, legal documents, etc., are also expected to be very precise and formal, with only long forms of words used.

So, what are some of the most common contractions?

Common English Contractions

First of all, and as we said above, in written English the apostrophe ( ’ ) is used to replace the missing letter or letters in contractions.

For example:

  • am becomes ’m
  • are becomes ’re
  • had becomes ’d
  • has becomes ’s
  • have becomes ’ve
  • is becomes ’s
  • will becomes ’ll
  • would becomes ’d

List of common English contractions

Long form Contraction/short form
I am I'm
he is he's
it is it's
she is she's
they are they're
we are we're
you are you're
I have I've
it has it's
he has he's
she has she's
they have they've
you have you've
we have we've
I had I'd
it had it'd
he had he'd
she had she'd
they had they'd
you had you'd
we had we'd
Question words + 'is'
Long form Contraction/short form
how is how's
what is what's
when is when's
where is where's
who is who's
why is why's
Negative Contractions
Long form Contraction/short form
are not aren't
were not weren't
do not don't
did not didn't
has not hasn't
have not haven't
had not hadn't
is not isn't
was not wasn't
can not can't
could not couldn't
must not mustn't
might not mightn't
shall not shan't
should not shouldn't
will not won't
would not won't

Example sentences using common English contractions

  1. he'll – he will
    Do you think he'll pass his driving test?
  2. I'll – I will
    I'll see you next week.
  3. I'm – I am
    I'm going for a walk.
    I'm hungry - can we eat now, please?
  4. it's – it is
    It’s freezing outside!
  5. she'd/he’d – she/he would or she/he had
    a) I wish she'd told me she wasn’t coming. (she had)
    b) Do you think he’d like to come to our party? (he would)

Contractions are used often in negative sentences.

For example:

  1. aren't – are not
    Why aren’t you answering your phone?
  2. can't – can not
    I can't find my glasses anywhere.
  3. didn't - did not
    They didn't tell me the meeting was cancelled.
  4. hasn't - has not
    He hasn't been in touch for over a month.
  5. mustn't - must not
    You mustn't be late for work
  6. shouldn't - should not
    I shouldn't have eaten so much!
  7. won't – will not
    My husband’s been feeling ill for days, but he won’t go to the doctor.
  8. wouldn't - would not
    My dad wouldn't let me drive his car.

Questions words + ‘is’

  1. What's the time? (what is)
  2. Where's my newspaper? (where is)
  3. When's your wedding? (when is)
  4. Who's coming to your wedding? (who is)

Summary

Contractions (or short forms) are abbreviated forms of a word or words, from which one or more letters have been left out and replaced by an apostrophe.

They're very common in spoken English and many forms of informal writing, and are increasingly accepted in more formal writing.

However, you should always write for your audience and your purpose, and in some formal writing, such as university assignments, it’s still considered inappropriate to include contractions.