English Communication Confidence Blog

Contractions In American English

Aug 25, 2022

Contractions are one of the secrets that will unlock your native-like speech and American accent. Go deeper into what contractions are, how we use them in American English, and listen to examples of celebrities using them in their speech.


Are contractions used widely in English?

You might be surprised to know that contractions are very widespread in everyday spoken English both in the United States and throughout Britain. So I thought we could take a closer look at how we use them in American English specifically.

Contractions usually consist of a subject and an auxiliary verb, a subject plus a negative, or a WH-question word and the verb to be. They come in handy when writing, saving us a few seconds here and there (think texting and tweeting!)

Contractions are also useful when we speak.

Americans are all about efficiency. We have a saying in New York that time is money...In other words...hurry it up. Say what you gotta say! So, in our attempt to get our messages across, we look for any way we can to shorten words and get to the important content quickly. Let's look at an example.

Instead of saying, he will meet us when he is ready, we can use contractions to say he'll meet us when he's ready. When you say that sentence out loud, you should notice how contractions create flow to the focus words. In this case meet and ready. 

Truth is, using contractions is not just about saving time, it's also about helping our listeners attend to the most important words in our thoughts. The extra effort we put into our communication means they, our audience, can take in what we're saying more easily. Personally, I think that's a great goal for anyone building communication competency.

While many may think that contractions represent recent development in the English language and grammar, the existence of contractions actually originated in Old English and Middle English. Interesting, right? Although the Old English alphabet – including most of its words – doesn't correspond to the type of contractions we use today, we can see that contractions have always served a purpose in the language and we can even see similar contractions today to the ones that were used in Early Modern English. 

Funnily enough, Early Modern English had many more contractions than those that we use now. Early Modern English included contractions such as shan't, 'twere, 'twon't, 'tis, ha'n't, among many more. Back then, contractions were an integral part of language, accepted in entertainment, literature, and scholarly works. 

It wasn't until the 18th century that the use of contractions was scrutinized and considered an informal form of English. Many believe that contractions can weaken a statement or make the writing or speech seem too casual. 

I don't think so.

Unless the purpose of your writing is for scholarly work, résumé, essay, or formal publication contractions are an essential part of the English language and that's why I want to encourage you to use them when you speak. What if you were to take risks with friends and family members who'll love you even if you don't say every contraction perfectly? What if you said them daily until they rolled off your tongue with more ease? 

All the American English dialects use contractions in one form or another. The more familiar you become with them, the more they can make you sound like a local. 

Look at this clip of the famous television show, The Tonight Show, and notice how Jimmy Fallon, the television host just uses contractions. He says "It's... you're very, very funny..." Did you notice how he starts his sentence with a contraction and isn't afraid to continue stringing new ideas and thoughts together – all while using contractions?

Contractions are so commonplace, that using them doesn't take away from the meaning of your message. In fact, by adding contractions Jimmy Fallon can flow better to the focus words and sound more colloquial. Also, the actress Fallon is interviewing, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, speaks with contractions too! If you listen well she never once says "is" when it can be contracted as an apostrophe s. 

Even speakers who're speaking in a more serious tone, like the one of this ABC News broadcaster, use contractions. Notice how he says "we can't address climate change... it's the largest source of emissions." He could've easily said, "we cannot address climate change," but instead opted for the contraction of can and not. This shows how really widespread and common speaking in contractions is. 

I wanna show you one of my favorite Ted Talks by speaker Luvvie Ajayi Jones. She's presenting to a whole audience on stage, and being filmed – and if you listen carefully, you'll notice how her speech starts with a contraction. Automatically, her main idea stands out to us like a big bang...she calls herself a professional troublemaker.  Also, by starting off with a contraction, she keeps her speech conversational – she wants to get her message across to the audience so they can relate and learn something. And what better way than to use contractions to make your speech sound natural and relaxed rather than serious and hard to hear...Do you get where I'm going with all this?

Although peppering your speech with contractions will make you sound more like a native English speaker, it's important to also note when it's incorrect to use them. The following are some examples highlighted in the Cambridge Dictionary

We don't, for example, use more than one contraction in a phrase. For example, you can say, he's not free, but saying he's'nt free is incorrect in both writing and speech. Here's one that might interest you. You can say the following: you wouldn't've known (you would not have known), but we wouldn't put those two contractions in writing. We'd only contract one word. In this case would + not, wouldn't. 

Also, while we use contractions to express negatives and we can use them at the end of clauses – such as saying, no I don't, we don't use affirmative contractions at the end of clauses. For instance, you wouldn't be able to say yes, I'm when responding to a question, but you could say I am or add a word and say yes I'm lost.

Ultimately, I want you to feel confident and have fun when using contractions in your everyday speech and conversations in English! Just know, that they're essential to supporting your flow to those key words and ideas. 

Drop a comment below and let Jill know what you're thinking about all this, ok?!

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