Q: I avoid “who’s” when referencing “who has” as opposed to “who is,” which seems the most obvious and possibly only correct usage. Can you clarify whether “who’s” can be used for “who has,” and if other contractions like it are acceptable as well?
A: In pronoun + verb contractions like “she’s,” “he’s,” “who’s,” “that’s,” and so on, the ’s ending represents a shortening of either “is” or “has.” Both are grammatically correct, according to standard usage guides, including Pat’s book Woe Is I.
So “who’s” is a legitimate contraction of both “who is” and “who has.” Examples: “Who’s he?” … “Who’s done the dishes?”
Similarly, “what’s” is a legitimate contraction of “what is” and “what has.” Examples: “What’s your name?” … “What’s happened to you?”
However, the use of ’s as a shortening of “does” is considered a casual or informal usage. So using “what’s” for “what does” (as in “What’s he think he’s doing?”) would not be recommended for formal writing. We recently had posting about this.
One last point: A lot of people think contractions aren’t quite right, especially when they want their writing to be at its very best. If you’re one of them, think again.
As we write in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths, writers have been using contractions since Anglo-Saxon days.
Old English contractions include nis from ne is (“is not”), naes from ne waes (“was not”), nolde from ne wolde (“would not”), naefde from ne haefde (“did not have”), and nat from ne wat (“does not know”).
“And such shortenings were an accepted part of the language for hundreds of years,” we say. “In Elizabethan times, for instance, Shakespeare didn’t spare contractions. He used them in dialogue (‘But he’s an arrant knave’—Hamlet), in titles (All’s Well That Ends Well ), and in sonnets (‘That’s for thyself to breed another thee’).”
It wasn’t until the early 1700s that anybody thought to question the use of contractions. Addison, Swift, Pope, and others began raising questions about their suitability in print, though educated people routinely used them in conversation.
By the late 18th century, contractions were tolerated in speech but considered a no-no in writing. But by the early 20th century, contractions were back in favor again.
In the 1920s, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his famous usage guide, and most writing handbooks now recommend contractions.
Lots of traditionalists, however, still haven’t gotten the word.
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