Q: I recently noticed an example of a three-word contraction in a novel: “couldn’t’ve.” Is this usage accepted? Is it an outlier? Something new? Something old that’s faded with time? Also, I wonder how far contractions can go. Four words? Five?
A: English speakers often mush together three words in speech. For example, “I would have” may be pronounced as “I’d’ve,” or “We might not have” as “We mightn’t’ve.”
However, such contractions are rarely seen in writing, except perhaps in dialogue. Even then, a careful writer would probably use “I’d have” or “We mightn’t have.” Why? Because three contracted words can be hard to read. And a writer wants (or should want) to be understood.
How far can one go in contracting written words? We think three words is already a word too far. Today, contractions generally include a verb, along with a subject or the word “not.” An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped.
In the past, longer contractions were common in writing, including ha’n’t, sha’n’t, ’twon’t, ’twouldn’t, and a’n’t, the father of ain’t. But in the 18th century, language commentators began condemning contractions as harsh-sounding, vulgar, or overly familiar. By the end of the century, they were considered a no-no in writing, though tolerated in speech.
It wasn’t until well into the 20th century that written contractions—at least the two-word variety—were again acceptable. In the 1920s, for example, Henry Fowler used them without comment in his influential usage guide.
In the new, fourth edition of Woe Is I, Pat’s grammar and usage guide, she lists contractions that she considers acceptable in formal writing and those that should be used only in dialogue, humor, or casual writing.
Fit to Print
aren’t, can’t, couldn’t, didn’t, doesn’t, don’t, hadn’t, hasn’t, haven’t, he’d (he would; he had), he’ll, here’s, he’s (he is; he has), I’d (I would; I had), I’ll, I’m, I’ve, isn’t, it’ll, it’s (it is; it has), let’s, mightn’t, mustn’t, oughtn’t, she’d (she would; she had), she’ll, she’s (she is; she has), shouldn’t, that’s (that is; that has), there’s (there is; there has), they’d (they would; they had), they’ll, they’re, they’ve, wasn’t, we’d (we would; we had), we’ll, we’re, we’ve, weren’t, what’ll, what’re, what’s (what is; what has), what’ve, where’s (where is; where has) who’d (who would; who had), who’ll, who’s (who is; who has), who’ve, won’t, wouldn’t, you’d (you would; you had), you’ll, you’re, you’ve
Out of Bounds
AIN’T. In presentable English, it’s not OK and it never will be OK. Get used to it. If you’re tempted to use it to show that you have the common touch, make clear that you know better: Now, ain’t that a shame!
COULD’VE, SHOULD’VE, WOULD’VE, MIGHT’VE, MUST’VE. There’s a good reason to stay away from these in your writing. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation, which explains why they’re often heard as could of, should of, would of, might of, and must of (or, even worse, coulda, shoulda, woulda, mighta, and musta). It’s fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let’s not forget that have is there. Write it out.
GONNA, GOTTA, WANNA. In writing, these are substandard English. Unless you’re talking to your sister on the phone, make it going to, got to, want to, and so on.
HOW’D, HOW’LL, HOW’RE, WHEN’LL, WHEN’RE, WHEN’S, WHERE’D, WHERE’LL, WHERE’RE, WHY’D, WHY’RE, WHY’S. Resist the urge to write contractions with how, when, where, or why, except that old standby where’s. We all say things like “How’m I supposed to pay for this and where’m I gonna put it?” But don’t put them in writing.
IT’D, THAT’D, THERE’D, THIS’D, WHAT’D. Notice how these ’d endings seem to add a syllable that lands with a thud? And they look ridiculously clumsy in writing. Let’s use the ’d contractions (for had or would ) only with I, you, he, she, we, they, and who.
THAT’LL, THAT’RE, THAT’VE, THERE’LL, THERE’RE, THERE’VE, THIS’LL, WHO’RE. No. These clumsies are fine in conversation, but written English isn’t ready for them yet. Do I use that’ll when I talk? Sure. But not when I write.
To repeat what we said above, those no-nos are acceptable in dialogue, humor, or casual writing, but not in formal writing.
Although usage guides now welcome contractions, some people still hesitate to use them in writing. We think that’s silly. As we’ve written in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, writers have been using contractions in English 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”).
[Note, May 12, 2019. A reader of the blog writes: “The author of a short story I just read was contraction crazy. Some I’d seen before, such as ‘we’ll’ve.’ One in particular, ‘to’ve’ (in an infinitive phrase), which he used several times, I looked up online and found that Melville used it. One to add to your never list?” Well, never say never. Writers of dialogue or humor, or who are deliberately being colloquial or dialectal, are free to be as creative as they want. As for the rest of us, things like “I ought to’ve gone” are fine in speech, but not in formal writing. Spell out the “have.”]
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