No, I’m not talking about a woman in labor.
I’m talking about grammar, and how it effects the play of your sentences. I’m talking about how to use it to give your writing more umph.
Contractions, I’m sure most of you know, is when two or more words are combined into one, shortened form, using apostrophes in place of certain letters (usually vowels). Wouldn’t; I’ve; don’t; weren’t. Most contractions are of only two words, and are used in colloquial language.
Double and triple contractions are super cool too, but much less common. Ones that spring to mind are:
She’d’ve – she would have.
Y’all’d’ve – you all would have
But we aren’t here to learn primary school English. We are here to discuss writing.
The way we use contractions in our writing is important. When wielded effectively, that is, when chosen carefully whether or not to use them, you can control exactly how a sentence will be read and perceived. This is, of course, true of all grammatical conventions, but is perhaps overlooked in our writing at times. Thinking over the influence and effect of different language can improve the punch in your writing.
Most of us likely use conjunctions all the time, and don’t really think about it much until we go to write an academic essay and have to avoid them; even then, we probably don’t realize the impact or difference it makes, maybe because they’re mostly interchangeable anyhow. ‘I am’ versus ‘I’m’ – the only difference is formality. Right?
No. These read completely differently. Think about someone speaking –
“I’m at my wits end”
“I am at my wits end”
Out of context, the second one may sound strange, but when considering it in relation to an emotion, it gives emphasis. The first sentence is frustrated, perhaps, but the second? That’s despair, or anger. You don’t glide over it; it’s slowed down, it grabs your attention.
When you realize this, you can begin to wield it. I’ve spoken to writers who struggle with conveying their character’s emotions, and they pick over their word choices. I think, often, the problem isn’t in the speech, but in the delivery. There’s at least a dozen ways changing the way you write something, the way you format it, can change the emotion of a sentence – but we’re focusing on contractions for this post.
‘Don’t’ is an interesting contraction, because unlike some, it’s not actually interchangeable in all situations. That’s probably due to language evolving over time, but either way, the full version isn’t always applicable in a sentence.
What am I talking about?
“Don’t you dare!”
What’s the extended version?
“Do not you dare!”
This occasionally limits how you manipulate the words, but can often be resolved by adjusting the other half of the sentence – in this case, by getting more specific.
“Don’t you dare blame me!” cannot become “Do not you dare blame me!”
Instead, consider “Do not blame this on me!”
Again, this sentence reads… well, a little strangely – depending where you put the emphasis. At this point, you combine it with another tool: italics. Again, we’re talking about contractions in this post, but, italics can be used when the author wants the reader to put the emphasis, the stress, on the correct word.
“Do not blame this on me!”
There. We got there.
Consider the difference now:
“Don’t you dare blame this on me!”
“Do not blame this on me!”
Maybe the experience is subjective, but for me, these sentences have very different feels. The first is, perhaps, exasperated, frustrated. The second, angry and accusing.
Contractions influence the speed of a sentence, and therefore, allows you to control the flow of it. Like I’ve said, you tend to ‘flow over’ contractions; it reads like everything else, it’s casual, it’s quick, and it’s familiar. However, using the full form slows things down, it breaks one word into two, it catches in our minds because it is so uncommonly used nowadays. You can see this in the examples above. And you can use this, to control your reader.
You can find a really cool explanation and list of contractions here.