Contractions in copy: the dos, do nots and don’ts

What are your feelings about won’t and can’t? Where do you stand on would’ve and should’ve? Have you any strong views on haven’t? Would you go as far as wouldn’t’ve?

We’re talking about contractions here, not the One Born Every Minute kind, but the truncation of words that sometimes proves surprisingly controversial.

When asked about tone of voice, many organisations say they want their websites to sound “conversational”. Contractions are integral to the way we talk to each other. So it follows that if you want your copy to read like a conversation with your reader, you’ll use contractions rather than writing each word in full. However, we find that many clients balk at this: it’s almost as contentious as starting sentences with “and” or “but”.

The reasons given for this vary. One client told us customers have actually written to him complaining about the use of contractions! But the main thing is people feel contractions somehow don’t sound “professional” or “expert” enough, or that they are slang.

However, the consequences of not using contractions are far-reaching when it comes to tone of voice. Anyone who’s seen the film True Grit will have noticed how odd the absence of contractions makes spoken language sound. And when it comes to written language, it’s amazing just how formal and stilted copy sounds with the consistent use of cannot, do not, will not etc, rather than the more conversational alternatives.

So when is it okay to use contractions in copy?

When to use contractions in copy usually depends on what kind of copy you’re writing.

If your copy is for the legal or financial world, it’s not a good idea to use too many contractions. Negative contractions in particular, like can’t and shouldn’t, can often be skimmed over and accidentally read as their positive counterparts, which changes the meaning of the copy for the reader – not great in such regulated industries.

It’s best to stay away from conditional contractions, like could’ve and would’ve, altogether. Because they’re conditional, ie about something that may or may not be true, it’s better to leave them out all together and stick to definitive words like can and will.

Positive and neutral contractions, like you’ll, we’re, it’s and there’s, are generally fine for copy. They make the copy sound less stilted and formal, but if that’s the tone you’re going for then leave them out entirely.

Its or it’s – what’s the difference?

The difference between its and it’s is less confusing than you think. Simply put, ‘its’ is possessive, and ‘it’s’ is short for it is or it has. But when do you use them?

Its is a possessive pronoun, like his or hers, but for nouns without a defined gender like a car or a building. For example; a car can’t move without its wheels. Its is not a contraction, it isn’t short for anything, it just shows possession.

It’s is a contraction of it is or it has. It’s all in the apostrophe. If you can’t replace it’s with it has or it is in a sentence, it doesn’t need an apostrophe. For example, in the phrase ‘it’s been a long time coming’ it’s is a contraction of it has.

If you’re not sure when to use which version, try substituting it is or it has into the sentence. If you end up with something that doesn’t make sense, like a car can’t move without it is wheels, you’ll know which version to use.

At Sticky, we don’t want messages to be lost in hard-to-read copy, so we recommend a middle way. Avoid double contractions and clumsy sounding constructions like would’ve, but keep things simple and natural with can’t, don’t, won’t, we’ll, you’ll, etc. That way, you keep the flow – and you shouldn’t get too many complaints from irate customers.

Let us help  

Need help with your truncation trials and tribulations? Speak to the team at Sticky for help. Get in touch 

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