Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 50

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 53: No Contractions in Dialogue

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 53: No Contractions in DialogueWhat’s the worst writing mistake an author can make? It’s a broad one: doing something you think makes you look sophisticated and clever, when really… it doesn’t. A common manifestation of this is a conscientious avoidance of contractions in dialogue and narrative.

I’ll admit I fell prey to this as a young writer (who not so coincidentally read a lot of Austen and Dickens). Contractions were informal, hence they must be unprofessional. And I was far too smart to be anything less than polished in my first novel.

The result, however, was more along the lines of what blog reader Jim Prall mentioned in a recent comment:

“I just finished [an] audiobook…. All the dialogue was rendered with no use of contractions at all. It really stood out and seemed quite jarring, perhaps especially when read aloud. Real people naturally speak in contractions all day long. Dialogue composed without them seemed really stiff and artificial—almost as if English were not the speakers’ first language.”

Today, let’s examine why contractions in dialogue should absolutely find a place within your writing—along with a few exceptions, in which it is actually best to avoid them.

How to Avoid Contractions in Dialogue and Sound Like Pompous Buffoon

Contractions, of course, are shortened words or phrases, usually created by combining two words and noting the juncture (and usually some deleted letters) with an apostrophe.

For example:

  • Can’t for cannot
  • Won’t for will not
  • She’ll for she will
  • He’d for he would or he had

They’re all slang—glorious slang!—and because almost everyone commonly uses contractions in almost all forms of communication, writers can hardly avoid contractions in dialogue without also sacrificing realism. What’s arguably even worse is that, because about the only times we do naturally avoid contractions is in super-formal usage, contraction-less writing inevitably comes across as forced, prim, even supercilious.

Take a look:

Billy galloped in from the cornfield, kicking the old mule forward. “The bandits is coming, Ma! They are coming for sure this time!”

Josephine looked up from the washtub and shaded her eyes. “Well, it is about time, is it not? We cannot keep hiding all this gold forever and a day.”

“But that is not all.” Billy dragged the old mule to a dusty stop. He gulped for air. “Pa is with them. White horse, white hat. I am sure it is him, Ma, I am just sure.”

Her heart stopped. “Good Lord. That cannot be. It just… that marshal said he died for sure.” He could not have lied… could he?

Do these folks sound like dirt-poor Old West farmers with dubious backgrounds? For that matter, do they sound like anybody you’ve ever heard of outside of Victorian British society (more on that in a sec)? Was the reading easy? Was it fun?

Or did it sound pompous and stilted?

How to Use Contractions in Dialogue to Rock Your Dialogue and Narrative Voice

Even aside from the fact that their prevalence necessitates their use in any sort of realistic dialogue or narrative voice, contractions are a tremendous tool for writers. A clever use and choice of contractions in dialogue will allow you to flavor your characters’ voices in unique and specific ways. Consider two lines from my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, set in early 19th-century England:

Example #1: “It is such a beautiful day, is it not? I love these genial September days in the country.”

Example #2: “Want my advice? Don’t be taking lodgings here. Post yourself straight from London. This ain’t no place for the innocent, if you know what I mean.”

Bet you can tell straight off which is the daughter of an earl and which is the street waif.

Now, take another look at our original example, but with a few choice contractions sprinkled into the dialogue:

Billy galloped in from the cornfield, kicking the old mule forward. “The bandits is coming, Ma! They’re coming for sure this time!”

Josephine looked up from the washtub and shaded her eyes. “Well, it’s about time, ain’t it? We can’t keep hiding all this gold forever and a day.”

“But that ain’t all.” Billy dragged the old mule to a dusty stop. He gulped for air. “Pa’s with ’em. White horse, white hat. I’m sure it’s him, Ma, I’m just sure.”

Her heart stopped. “Good Lord. That can’t be. It just… that marshal said he died for sure.” He couldn’t have lied… could he?

They sound like totally different people, don’t they?

But What About Contractions in Narrative?

Every now and then, I’ll run into a writer who received a critique (usually from a fellow unpublished author), in which they were advised to use contractions, but only in dialogue. Is that accurate?

Yes and no. Ultimately, it depends upon how formal you want your narrative to be. But if you’re writing deep within your character’s head—in first-person or deep third—then the narrative voice you’re creating will follow the same basic principles as dialogue. The first and foremost of those principles is: Make it sound alive!

Mistborn Brandon SandersonHere’s a third-person example from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn:

It wasn’t a hard rain, but it seemed to clear the mist slightly. Vin shivered, pulling up her hood, crouching beside Kelsier on a rooftop. He didn’t pay the weather much heed, so neither did she. A little dampness wouldn’t hurt—in fact, it would probably help, as the rainfall would cover the sounds of their approach.

Fault in Our Stars John GreenAnd a first-person example from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars:

That is probably true even if you live to be ninety—although I’m jealous of the people who get to find out for sure. Then again, I’d already lived twice as long as Van Houten’s daughter. What he wouldn’t have given to have a kid die at sixteen.

In short, please, use contractions.

4 Exceptions: When You Shouldn’t Use Contractions in Dialogue

With all that said, there absolutely are instances in which foregoing contractions in dialogue is a good choice. Here are four:

1. When Writing Historical Dialogue

One of the reasons we still instinctively feel contractions are less than sophisticated is because, for centuries, they were. Particularly prior to the 20th century, contractions were used only by the lower classes. (Hence, my earl’s daughter in the previous excerpt and her hoity “is it not?”.)

This does not mean you can never use contractions in historical dialogue, but it does mean you must be aware of the conventions of the times and which characters would and would not be using contractions in their everyday speech.

Medicus Ruth DownieAgain, however, another exception: when writing very ancient historical fiction, you can often get away with putting surprisingly modern words in your characters’ mouths, since you’re not going to be able to accurately replicate their true forms of speech with any intelligibility to today’s readers. Ruth Downie’s Medicus, set during the Roman Empire, is a good example:

“Merula isn’t going to hurt you, Tilla. She’s no fool. She wouldn’t dare touch someone else’s slave.”

2. When It Suits the Character’s Personality

Contractions are a valuable tool in conveying dialect and informality (such as Billy and his mom or my Cockney street waif from the above examples), but it works in reverse too. When you’re purposefully writing a character who is elegant, educated, pompous, or reserved, foregoing at least some of his possible contractions may be a good choice.

3. When the Character Is Not a Native Speaker

Storming 165As Jim Prull noted in the comment I shared at the top of the article, a lack of contractions in dialogue often makes characters (or the author) sound like a non-native speaker. When this is the intended effect, it can be used to great advantage. I chose this trick for the mysterious woman who falls out of the sky in my aviation-adventure novel Storming:

“To Groundsworld I am falling. Now I am having to go home before time is too late. Please. But you cannot be talking of this to any persons on ground.”

4. When the Situation Is Formal

When you’re in a situation where you want to make a good impression, appear professional, or cover your nerves, you’re more likely to speak precisely and avoid contractions. Same goes for your characters. When one of them is nervous or giving a speech (or both), you might want to consider stiffening his language choices just a bit.

In your quest to bring your characters and stories to life, you need to access every possible tool. Contractions in dialogue are a comparatively small trick, but they can also be a powerful one when used with knowledgeable intent. I can’t sum it up better than Jim Prull did in his comment:

So whatever you feel you must do in your own voice as narrator, please don’t artificially distort your characters’ dialogue to satisfy some imagined requirement for “proper” grammar.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How do you feel about contractions in dialogue and narrative? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. My wife informed me that I am guilty of this!

  2. I am British, thus I know whereof you speak. Hahaha! (With my tutor hat on) the mangling of the English language gets me all fired up when I see text speak; the improper use of there, their, and they’re, etc.; and hear my grand daughter saying: “It’s totes amaze balls, Nanny!” As for the word ‘like’ that peppers every sentence…don’t get me started. However, if I’m setting a story at this time in our history, my imaginary friends must use current speech patterns. Otherwise, what chance does my novel have of becoming a huge, runaway success? Or, to put it another way: “like totes amaze balls like”?

    • Like you, Lita, I’m British, and like you too, I detest ‘txt spk’.

      There are many words and word usages in today’s speech, and increasingly in published language, that make me cringe.

      My personal bête noir is the misuse of ‘awesome’ everywhere. The word has become devalued, but if dialogue is to replicate the speech of our characters, then we have to include the ‘likes’, ‘whatevers’, and ‘awesomes’, that those characters would naturally use… Yes, even ‘totes’ and ‘amazeballs’ (is it one word or two?).

      It’s easy to blame it all on the use of technology, but slang and misuse has always gone on, often leading to words changing their meaning (e.g. ‘presently’).
      However, on the subject of contractions, one regularly found error that can be blamed on technology is the reversed apostrophe when the missing letter is at the beginning of the word.
      Because most people use computers to write, contractions like ’cos, ’bout, and ’em often get an opening single quotation mark (‘) rather than a true apostrophe (’) because the computer’s default is to put the comma that way round after a space.

      I did a basic IT for idiots course to familiarise myself with a ‘Windows’ system, as I was a self taught user of an ancient Mac, and even the tutor couldn’t tell me how to type accented letters and apostrophes at the start of a contraction (yet as a task, we were supposed to prepare a brochure for a café). I know where they are on a Mac keyboard, but still haven’t a clue on a Windows PC.

      • I’m Canadian. I use American spelling (no letter ‘u’ in certain words), but I also loathe ‘txt spk’ and even worse ‘L33T’. I’ll use it if a character in my fiction needs it, but otherwise, it annoys my eyes.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Jeffrey, you raise a good point in that these shorthand versions have absolutely no place in written fiction, save in character communications when appropriate–and only to be used sparingly.

          • I’m American, and I don’t mind ‘txt spk’, I think it’s funny. As language evolved into the formal speak and proper spelling you all prefer, so too is modern language evolving to fit its time and people. It’s easier to type ‘txt spk’ than ‘text speak.’ As long as people understand what’s being said, I don’t see a problem with it. What’s wrong with faster communication? In fiction I think we need to be a little more strict. First, your language has to fit your story and your audience. ‘Amazeballz’ wouldn’t work well in Historical fiction, or from a character who would never use that word outside of irony. And second, it has to be legible. Most educated people know the difference between the yours, thus it’s just jarring when people use the wrong one. Other than that, I like that people are making new words, and I think many of them could have a place in fiction.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            I’m not a big fan of text speak, but I don’t disagree with. Language evolves. It’s just how it rolls. It’s what makes it alive and exciting and, ultimately, useful.

      • Just in case you did not find it yet: in MS Word you can get the accents on your letters by holding ctrl+ accent you want to apply and then type the required letter, or (if the accent is in an ‘upper case position on the keyboard) ctrl+shift+accent and then type the letter… Very useful when you want to type in French or another accented language…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. This made me laugh, Lita. It probably shouldn’t have. But it did. 😉

  3. I think it’s a particularly key part of making most dialog sound “natural” and also in distinguishing voices apart. Some people use contractions differently to others in real life, so why not in a story?

    One thing I loved about the remake of True Grit is that the characters for the most part spoke without using contractions – the juxtaposition of “the wild west” without the more modern laziness of contractions (I have no idea if it’s true of not, but it definitely made for a distinctive ‘feel’!).

    I also think contractions (or not) are not always paid due attention by writers, and so by being very conscious of their effect on the reader, one can introduce subtleties otherwise missed.

    Then we get contractions that become slang, and introduce an entirely new voice: “Thankee sai,” for example … love it.

    Thanks again, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That was something I really appreciated about Charles Portis’s True Grit novel as well. The stylized narration, in the voice of the period, is one of its greatest charms.

  4. I quite agree that, in most cases, writing using contractions is necessary to relate to the reader. (Even the most sophisticated person I ever met used contractions.) However, in a story I’m currently uploading to a website I use, I created a language that doesn’t use contractions. Yes, it sounds a bit stilted but the speakers of this language are on a technological stage equivalent to the Medieval Ages of Earth. I bounce back and forth between using contractions (during the narration by the protagonist who is from 25th Century Earth) and not (when relating conversations with the natives of the world the protagonist finds himself stuck on). However, I did find myself, at times, forgetting which I was supposed to be writing and wouldn’t use contractions during the narration and using contractions during the translation of the language. I finally finished the story and I’m sure that I’ve made numerous mistakes, especially in using contractions where I shouldn’t have.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with that! As long as there’s a story-driven reason for choosing to go contraction-less, it’s a solid tool in your writing toolbox.

  5. Another post filled with good advice, Katie. I’ve always said this. It’s one of the easy ways to spot a less experienced writer’s work. Fortunately, most editors will deal with it before it goes to print.

    Like you, I use contraction free dialogue for characters whose English is less than natural… I often have foreign characters speaking English as a foreign language in my novels.

    Another time when the ‘full fat’ versions of phrases would be used in dialogue is when a character is emphasising something.

    For example:

    “I’m just goin’ out for a moment, Mum… OK?”

    “Hold it right there… You will not leave this house until you’ve done your homework. Do you understand me?”

    “But Mum…”

    “You heard me… Homework first… Now!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Going sans contractions is a really great trick for letting foreign dialects come across without descending into mangled spellings.

  6. Hannah Gaudette says:

    Perfect advice! You wouldn’t think something as simple as an apostrophe would make such a difference, but it really does. I’ll have to take note of this more as I write. One book I read quite a while ago (historical fiction set on the Oregon trail) had very few contractions, and it needed them badly! A good book, but it was very disjointed at times.

    Thanks for the great words of wisdom!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      When in doubt, in writing historical fiction or anything else, I say always go with the option that makes the reading the most intuitive for readers. Sometimes that means putting contractions in the mouths of characters who might not really have used them in their own period.

  7. I use two forms of narrative prose: without contractions and with contractions. The first is formal and aloof. The second is informal and companionable. To me, the first feels like an official telling of the story that provides a bit of isolation and a sense of precision and accuracy. The second is more like being casually told a story that might be full of hyperbole or other manipulations of the facts.

    Once, a beta reader marked every opportunity for contractions in one of my stories. That changed the feeling of the story significantly, and it was not the feeling I was after.

    These two sentences feel different.

    Flurfy did not care and did not help.

    Flurfy didn’t care and didn’t help.

  8. When I was a much younger writer I thought it’d be brilliant to have a species that spoke Middle English (i.e. Shakespearean. ) Turns out that was too distracting to keep up (especially when two of the characters were teenagers. Who spoke like characters from a Shakespeare play). I did realize something interesting (maybe everyone else already knew this). The Middle English had contractions too- but some are backwards from ours, like ’tis instead of it’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, I’ve done experiments like that and forgotten halfway through that I was supposed to avoiding contractions. It’s always a mess. :p

  9. I’ve found it best, whatever my current work in progress might be, to read it back out loud to myself. Of course, this isn’t a new thing. I thought I’d mention it in case it might help someone else.

    Doing this definitely gives me a better feel for so many elements of the dialog! Errors in how I’ve written that particular character’s choice of contractions, lack of them, words chosen, inflections, colloquial words, even pauses and otherwise will jump out and grab me by the shoulders to point out EXACTLY how unlike that particular character it is. Or how that character’s interaction with another character, a situation, action, etc. is not quite clicking.

    Anyone standing outside the door of my bat cave would think I’m totally nuts though, having conversations entirely by myself in different voices and accents…
    This technique definitely helps get me into my storyline’s ‘zone’ as well which makes the words just write themselves at times it seems.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Reading aloud is incredibly valuable technique. It’s amazing how much a new perspective it can give you on just about everything in your story.

  10. Another good time to avoid contractions is for emphasis.

    I AM sorry.
    It IS a good time.
    You WILL go to bed.

    Even low-brow mamas use that last one. 😉

  11. Here in Australia – Victoria specifically – the word grouse became a popular slang term in the 1980’s to describe something that was “cool” or “really good”. We kids used to say that’s grouse!

    I don’t know why or how it took a hold but, for years, posses of children and teens adopted it into their lexicon.

    When I moved interstate in my 20’s, I happened to drop the term into a conversation one day. The people I was with glared at me like I was some sort of loon!!

    For years, I didn’t use the term but then I reconnected with some childhood friends via social media and I was delighted to discover that they still used it in conversation. I’ve snuck it back into conversation here and there and delight in confusing people who aren’t familiar with it.

    I’ve tried using it in my writing but have chickened out in keeping it there. There’s only so much regional dialogue one can get away with.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. That’s kinda like how hip Americans say something they admire is “sick.” Crazy how language evolves sometimes.

  12. People don’t use 100% grammatically correct English when they speak. I believe that, if an English teacher graded our conversations, the final grade would be around a C minus. It’s enough that everyone understands each other. Contractions are part of that. If you actually tried to write dialogue that would get an A from your English teacher for correctness, it would sound incredibly stilted. Some of it could almost sound backwards, like Master Yoda from the Star Wars movies. (“Looking? Found someone you have, hmm?”) It’s good to know the rules, but it’s also good to know when to break them. In dialogue and first-person narration, you almost have to.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s the truth! Even the most articular among us rarely talk in perfect sentences. And how boring would it be if we did? The best dialogue is always the rough stuff: the chopped sentences, the slang, the inferences.

  13. I know what you mean. I do the same thing by simply re-reading what I’ve written. Sometimes, I catch spelling or grammar mistakes (that this wonderful Microsoft Office software misses), along with missing contractions that I could use, and have to correct them. I’m still trying to figure out, for example, why Microsoft Office seems to thing that Your Highness should be You’re Highness. LOL.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I really love having programs read aloud *to* me as well. Forces me to listen to what’s really on the page, instead of what I think is there.

    • Yes!! Word does that to me all the time! It has this strange idea that “himself” and “herself” aren’t words, too. Word processors and their idiosyncracies.

  14. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve done the same thing with the story I’ve been uploading. That’s why I re-read my stories several times to try to catch those mistakes.

  15. ” … It’s all about authorial intent …’
    You said it, Katie.
    That summarizes it–what is the intent?
    Oops –what’s the intent?
    It’s true that the writing can come over as “lazy,” if used without contractions. But then again, how dogmatic should we become?
    English is not my first language, (can you tell?), and I find it interesting and enlightening to read all the comments, opinions and viewpoints.
    Afrikaans, and I believe, German and Dutch, have less of an issue with contractions. Then again–we’re using English.
    Back to my thesis about being dogmatic.
    The best way out of the conundrum is, as Katie said it, “It’s all about authorial intent.”
    Thanks, Katie!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree about dogma being the death of creativity. It’s important to understand standards and guidelines, because in so doing, we will also understand when they apply and when they don’t.

  16. Amy Fletcher says:

    Thanks for this post Katie. I found it very interesting (like all your posts and books).
    In my first completed novel, I had two characters who were the same person from different lifetimes. For the character from the past, I didn’t use any contractions in her dialogue or when writing in her POV, but for the present day character I used contractions. I think this worked well in my story and helps readers to keep track of the characters.

  17. Always thought sick was the opposite of well or healthy.

  18. Marian Jacobs says:

    This was encouraging to read. I was afraid for a moment that you were going to say all characters should use contractions! But thankfully I’ve been using them as a specific character distinctions. Especially characters that were born in different centuries.

    What I need to keep in mind now is not to get too carried away with having every single person using them completely differently. There is always room for personality differences, but there should also be some type of indication that certain characters are from the same time and socio-economic ranking.

  19. Max Woldhek says:

    “Wipes sweat from brow.”

    Phew, that’s one bullet dodged. I use contractions in almost all dialogue already. In fact, I was thinking of having a military character in my next book not use contractions at all, specifically to help her stand out in the reader’s mind, and help underline certain aspects of her character.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Uptight characters are often good choices for going sans contractions, but I would recommend not being *too* strict on the consistency. Write for what sounds best. You may find some instances where even your uptight character sounds better with the occasional contraction–and without sacrificing her voice.

  20. Luckily for me, I somehow always knew to use contractions in my novel-writing. I suppose, this was because I adopted a very ‘simple’ style when it came to writing. At least, when I was working on contemporary pieces.

    In some ways, I think the writers that fall into the trap of avoiding contractions, are those that want to seem as eloquent and well-spoken as possible. But, at the end of the day.. A reader isn’t really looking for that. They’re looking for realism, and a story that’s gonna’ rock their socks off!

    I’m glad though, that literature is adopting contractions to a larger extent. It allows for easy-reading, and doesn’t hinder the flow of narrative. However I must say, I will always cherish the classics which in most cases – knew nothing about contractions!

  21. Very well said, and a good thing for me to keep in mind. Now to decide which sort of contractions to use. Do you think it would be jarring to the reader if I used contractions like ’tis, ’tisn’t, ’twas, etc instead of the modern forms? I can’t decide if it will come off as stilted when used with language that is rather more modern than that from which the contractions came. Also, just wanted to add that contractions did exist in other timeperiods, but they were often different than modern ones, and, though avoided by the upper classes in some periods, were often present even in the most high ranking mouths. For example, in the 18th century you wouldn’t say it’s, you would say ’tis (by Jane Austin’s day this was beginning to shift to the modern form) and an interesting one that has disappeared completely, “an’t” for “and it” (this comes from “Roderick Random”, published in 1748, and put in the mouth of a rich man of property). They had several we still use, like “there’s”, “that’s” and “I’ll”, but most interstingly, they would quite often contract words ending in “-ed”, like “tuck’d” for “tucked”, because they usually pronounced the ending.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Funny you should ask this, actually. I just dinged by critique partners for overusing “’tis” in a period historical. So… short answer is: they’re fine to use, but with restraint.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Our stories ride on our characters. Melanie Conklin discusses creating characters that feel real, Ruth Harris shows how to create memorable characters using details, and James Scott Bell explains why plot is essential to character. Meanwhile, Zoe M. McCarthy warns against character overload in first chapters, and K.M. Weiland tackles the common writing mistake of not using contractions in dialogue. […]

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