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Should Contractions Be Used In Essays

Ask the MLA

Does the MLA allow the use of contractions in scholarly writing?

Yes. The MLA allows contractions in its publications. In professional scholarly writing, sometimes a formal tone is desired, but often a more conversational approach is taken. When overused, contractions can be distracting. But there is nothing inherently incorrect about contractions, which often keep prose from being stilted and make it more approachable and easier to read. However, clarity and context matter.

Contractions may not be suitable for all types of formal writing—like a research paper, where protocols for formal writing are being learned. After all, it’s easier to understand when to bend a rule once it has been mastered. There are countless other examples of formal writing when contractions would be unsuitable (e.g., if you are writing a judge requesting leniency in sentencing, contractions will seem dismissive).

When to avoid contractions in your prose:

If the contraction could have more than one meaning: she’d can mean she had or she would. If a contraction results in lack of clarity, avoid it.

If more than one word is contracted—for example, he’d’ve for he would have.

If have is pronounced “of” when elided: could’ve (could have). The consensus is to avoid such formulations in formal writing (Garner; O’Conner).

If the contraction can be mistaken for a possessive, even momentarily: The teacher’s key to the classroom and can’t be replaced (better: The teacher is key to the classroom and can’t be replaced).

Works Cited

Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford UP, 2009.

O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. E-book, Riverhead Books, 2009.

Contractions

We often "contract" or shorten words in English. For example, we may say "he's" instead of "he is". Note that we usually insert an apostrophe (') in place of the missing letter or letters in writing. Here are some example sentences:

  • I haven't seen him. (I have not seen him.)
  • Who's calling? (Who is calling?)
  • They're coming. (They are coming.)

We do this especially when we speak. We do not contract words so much in writing

The following pages show the most common contracted forms.

Positive Contractions

I'm, you're, he's, it's, we'd...

Negative Contractions

aren't, can't, hasn't, mustn't, won't...

Other Contractions

here's, that'll, what's, who'd...

Informal Contractions

ain't, gimme, gonna, gotta, kinda, wanna...

Contractions are very common in spoken English. They are not so common in written English. We may use contractions in a friendly letter, for example, but they are not usually correct in more formal texts such as business letters or essays. If you have to write an essay in an exam, do not use contractions. The only exception to this would be when you quote somebody within your essay, for example spoken dialogue.

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