What Are Contractions in Writing?

Contractions are shortened forms of pairs of words. For example, "haven't" is a contraction for "have not"; "don't" is a contraction for "do not"; and "I'm" is a contraction for "I am." We use contractions every day in casual speech and writing, but you should avoid contractions in formal writing.

When to Use Contractions

Contractions make it easier for readers to understand your writing because they help your language sound natural. Use contractions in informal writing assignments and applications, such as letters or emails to your friends, informal business memos and creative writing assignments. An informal, conversational tone is appropriate for these assignments, so contractions are permissible. Intentionally avoiding contractions in these assignments may lead to stilted, awkward language. Some professors may also permit contractions in formal writing assignments, but check first.

When to Avoid Contractions

Don't use contractions in formal writing assignments, such as essays, technical writing, cover letters or formal business communications unless you have permission. Using contractions makes your language sound more informal, which may make you sound less authoritative or make a serious issue sound too casual. However, some critics think using contractions in formal language makes it more readable and accessible.

Punctuating Contractions

Use an apostrophe to indicate that letters have been removed from a contraction. For example, shorten "it is" to "it's"; "would not" to "wouldn't"; and "he will" to "he'll." The apostrophe goes where the letters have been taken out. You can also use apostrophes to denote contracted forms of dates, such as '70s instead of 1970s.

Possessives and Contractions

Students often confuse possessives and contractions. These words often sound identical, but they are spelled differently. For example, "their" indicates possession while "they're" is a shortened form of "they are." If you aren't sure which form to use, swap the contraction for its original words and check whether the sentence makes sense. For example, "They are going to the lake" makes sense, so you can write "They're going to the lake," but "I'm staying at they are house" doesn't make sense, so it should be "I'm staying at their house."

About the Author

Rebekah Richards is a professional writer with work published in the "Atlanta Journal-Constitution," "Brandeis University Law Journal" and online at She graduated magna cum laude from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in creative writing, English/American literature and international studies. Richards earned a master's degree at Carnegie Mellon University.