The Cambridge online dictionary distinguishes between ‘strong movements of the muscles of the womb that help to push the baby out of the mother’s body during the process of birth’, and ‘short forms of words often used instead of the full form’. These are both contractions. The type we’re interested in, as writers and editors, are shouldn’t, didn’t and haven’t. In this context, contraction means shortening. The contraction is marked by the n’t which is joined to the verb, as a short form of not (the apostrophe stands for the missing ‘o’). The full form is should not, did not and have not. But in real life we’re always cutting corners. We don’t  say:

‘You should not play in the road’ but ‘You shouldn’t play in the road’

‘She did not come to work today’ but ‘She didn’t come to work today’

‘No, I have not seen that film’ but ‘No, I haven’t seen that film’.

Birthing mothers have my full sympathy: I’m sure their contractions are painful. If you write dialogue with do not instead of don’t, you won’t cause physical pain: but you will  irritate your reader, because your dialogue will be flat, unrealistic and unconvincing. Using the full form is just not how people speak in real life. As an editor, I often have to change full forms into contractions, shunting n’t on to the verb.

The exception would be when a character is using formal or emphatic speech, for example ‘Did you come late?’ ‘I did not!’ If you’re writing dialogue, any scene where characters talk to each other informally, or even where a character is talking or thinking to him/herself, the words would be ‘I didn’t‘, not ‘I did not’. If you’re writing dialogue, always ask yourself: ‘How are my contractions?’

Which is shorter, the clock-tower in the picture, or the plane flying over it? I’ve got no idea, to be honest. But I know ‘I’ve got’ is shorter than ‘I have got’, and it sounds better in a conversation.

Anyway, take heart: I have before me ‘a wonderful book’ (Literary Review) which is ‘beautifully written’ by an award-winning writer. But he puts in one character’s mouth the words ‘we are nowhere near’ instead of ‘we’re nowhere near’, and ‘do you think there is any room left?’ instead of ‘do you think there’s any room left?’ Blame the editor for those lapses: most of the dialogue is convincing and lifelike because contractions are used, not full forms. Maybe the editor had a lapse of concentration. Just goes to show we are all human, does it not? Or, as I’d prefer to write, we’re all human, aren’t we? I mean, it shows that, doesn’t it? And that’s true, isn’t it?

Rob Matthews
Betterwrite Managing Editor

Posted in Advice to Writers.

One Comment

  1. I mostly agree with this, but I will occasionally use full forms in my dialogue. Why? To add emphasis, or slow down the delivery of a line.

    There’s a pacing difference between, ‘I won’t go!’ and ‘I will not go!’ Just like you know you’re in trouble when your parents call you by your full name, you know things are getting serious when characters speak using full forms. At least, that’s what I think.

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