by Bonnie Trenga
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is troublesome contractions.
Guest writer Bonnie Trenga writes,
This episode’s about contractions. Or would it be better to say, “This episode is about contractions”? While we’re in the neighborhood, we’ll talk about some other potentially problematic contractions. What’s the fate of “I’d’ve,” with two apostrophes in one contraction, or “there’re,” a mouthful of an abbreviation of “there are”?
Contractions That Involve “Is”
First, we'll talk about contractions that involve the word “is.” You’ve probably learned from previous episodes that a contraction is the combination of two (or sometimes more) words into one, and that you use an apostrophe to represent the missing letter or letters.
Run-of-the-mill contractions you’ll encounter in everyday reading or speaking include “I’m,” for “I am”; “she’ll,” for “she will”; and “o’clock,” for “of the clock.” Most contractions pose no problem, but contractions that involve the word “is” can cause confusion or ambiguity (1).
You’ll encounter a problematic “is” contraction when you’re contracting it with a noun. Take, for example, the contraction of the words “the dancer” and “is,” which becomes “the dancer’s.” If you said, “The dancer’s flushed,” meaning “the dancer exerted herself and her face became red,” someone listening to you (instead of reading) might think you meant that some dancers flushed a commode. It would be easy to think that the contraction was a plural noun. In this case, it would be better to spell things out: “The dancer is flushed.”
In another example, it’s easy to misread the contraction as a possessive construction, which inconveniently uses an apostrophe too. Take, for example, “The man’s mad.” At first you might expect the word after “man’s” to be a noun, as in “the man’s hat” or “the man’s beard,” so when you read the word “mad,” you do a double take. To save readers from confusion, you should probably spell out the contraction: “The man is mad.”
In short, it’s best to avoid contractions with the verb “is” when you are using it with a noun, including a proper name. “Kim’s here” (Kim-apostrophe-s) isn’t wrong, but it just isn’t as clear as “Kim is here.”
Contractions That Involve “Had” or “Would”
Next, we'll talk about contractions that involve the words “had” or “would.” These can also be troublesome because you can interpret contractions to mean two things (2). Both “had” and “would” are contracted with an apostrophe plus a “d,” as in “I’d already been there” (for “I had already been there”) and “I’d rather not go” (for “I would rather not go”). Sometimes readers (or listeners) can become momentarily unsure whether you mean “I had” or “I would, for example, and they have to spend extra time working out what you mean.
So if you find yourself using a contraction with an apostrophe plus a “d,” consider spelling it out instead. Although your sentence might be perfectly clear to you, it might not be so clear to someone reading it for the first time.
Other Hazardous Contractions
Finally, at the top of the show, you heard me mention contractions such as “I’d’ve” and “there’re.” These mouthfuls are among those you should consider avoiding, especially when you write. It’s not a good idea to contract two things inside one contraction, as happens with “I’d’ve,” a contraction of “I would have” (3). It would be better to say, “I’d have” or perhaps not even use a contraction at all.
As for “there’re,” this is among a fairly long list of contractions that the book Woe Is I, a useful grammar reference by Patricia O'Conner, suggests you avoid (4).
Also among that list are contractions such as “could’ve,” “should’ve,” “would’ve,” “might’ve,” and “must’ve,” because they encourage people to believe the proper pronunciations are “could of” and “must of,” which are incorrect. It’s better to spell these out when you are writing them, though O’Conner’s book acknowledges that you'll probably find yourself using these contractions in regular speech.
Other contractions to consider avoiding include “what’d,” “that’ve,” and “when’re” because they “land with a thud.” (As you can tell, I can barely say them!) Most people’ll—oops, people will—find those contractions odd sounding and odd looking.
Contractions are useful, especially when you’re writing informally. But beware of potentially confusing or ambiguous contractions and try to avoid those that sound awkward.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of the paperback book Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
Finally, if you want to get Grammar Girl and other great shows from Quick and Dirty Tips streamed to your iPhone try Stitcher free today at stitcher.com.
1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, p. 195.
2. Stilman, A. Grammatically Correct. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2004, p. 192.
3. Lutz, G. and Stevenson, D. Grammar Desk Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2005, p. 251.
4. O’Conner, P. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 74-5.