Are contractions bad? In a way, but not for the obvious reason.

Oh my. Edwin Battistella begins a recent post in the OUP blog with this sentence:

A few years ago, a student dropped a linguistics course I was teaching because the textbook used contractions.

Yikes, can that be true? Apparently so.

The rest of Battistella’s initial paragraph continues thus:

The student had done some editorial work and felt that contractions did not belong in a college textbook, much less one he was paying 50 dollars for. It was probably all for the best. If he didn’t like contractions, he probably would’ve hated the course. 

Yes, he would have hated the course, I’m sure. But because of what linguistics is all about, not because of a dispute over contractions. It’s a pity that he dropped it, as it would have improved his soul.

And his mind.

And his understanding of language.

Linguistics, as Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne of Lingthusiasm are fond of pointing out, is about analyzing language, not judging it. So we really need more students like the one in question.

Anyway, what’s wrong with contractions? The only thing that’s wrong with them is the apostrophe:

  • People can’t remember when to use and when not to use apostrophes! They write the contractions in the previous paragraph as “whats” and “thats,” both of which are perfectly understandable. So is “apple’s one dollar,” to give a non-contraction example. And of course they confuse “its” with “it’s.”
  • More importantly, writing is supposed to be a representation of speaking. We use contractions in speech all the time, and nobody can hear the apostrophes (or lack thereof)!
  • OK, I understand the student’s objection to using contractions in formal writing (even though he’s wrong), which is not quite a representation of speaking. But this is where we say to him, “Get over it!” Contractions, as Battistella suggested to him, “often made writing more readable and accessible.”

Anyway, go read Battistella’s entire post. It’s short, and well worth reading.

Categories: Linguistics