Did you know there are two kinds of contractions in English?
We have formal contractions, which are fine for both writing and speaking in both formal and informal registers, and informal contractions that only work in speaking and informal writing, such as text messages.
Using informal contractions in formal writing is a common mistake English learners make. Unfortunately, they’ll make you seem careless or even rude!
So how can we make sure we’re not accidentally using the wrong contractions? Read on to find out.
Remember: If you need someone to check your English writing, our tutors are here for you 24/7.
Formal vs. Informal Contractions
Some teachers tell their students to avoid all contractions in formal communications. While this is a good rule to follow when writing school papers and standardized exams, it’s unnecessary in most other situations. You may even sound unnatural if you rigidly avoid all contractions.
It’s more helpful to remember that there are two kinds of contractions: formal and informal. Formal contractions are the contractions you usually learn in English class, such as the following:
- I’m (= I am)
- Let’s (= let us)
- There’s (= there is)
- Don’t (= do not)
- Should’ve (= should have)
Notice that they all have apostrophes (‘). On the other hand, informal contractions usually don’t, like the ones below:
- Wanna (= want to)
- Gonna (= going to)
- Gotta (= got to)
- Kinda (= kind of)
- Gimme (= give me)
Informal contractions are colloquial and help you sound more natural and fluent when you speak. You can also use them in text messages. However, they don’t look good in formal writing.
To get a better idea of when to use which contraction, check out the following samples of formal communication.
Note: If you don’t understand all the words in the samples, don’t worry! Just focus on the contractions for now.
Sample 1: Political Speech
Former US President Barack Obama made a famous speech when he was still a local politician in 2004. He started by introducing his family background and connecting his story to the American dream.
They [my parents] imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren't rich, because in a generous America you don't have to be rich to achieve your potential. They're both passed away now. And yet I know that, on this night, they look down on me with great pride.
You can watch this part of the speech below:
Notice that even in this formal speech, Obama uses the contractions “weren’t,” “don’t,” and “they’re.” That’s because these are formal contractions.
Here are some more examples from the same speech:
… there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America. There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.
Sample 2: Email
You can also use formal contractions in formal emails. For example, you can write the following to a professor: “Dear Professor Smith, I’d like to ask a question about something you said in class today.”
However, you don’t want to use informal contractions like “I wanna ask you a question.” An English professor in Taiwan explains jokingly, “When I see emails like [this], I wait a moment to let my anger die down…. Then I reply, telling the student that ‘wanna’ is impolite.”
Other common email expressions include “I’m writing to inform you that…,” and “Please let me know if that’s OK.”
- Notice that “let me” is not contracted to “lemme,” because that would be informal.
- However “I am” and “that is” are contracted to “I’m” and “that’s.”
Keep an Eye Out For Contractions
So next time you write or say something formal, you’ll know what contractions to use. You can practice observing more contractions used in formal English by watching BBC news videos. And if you need help writing something formal, feel free to book a lesson with one of our tutors!