The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Spelling Conventions > Forming Contractions
Contractions are formed when words are shortened by omitting one or more letters, which are most often replaced with an apostrophe. Contractions most commonly occur when two words that commonly appear next to each other in a sentence are combined into a new, singular word. Less commonly (predominantly in informal speech and writing), we can also contract single words into shorter forms, or we can even combine more than two words into a single contraction.
Contracting two words
Two-word contractions are by far the most common, but we cannot simply contract any two adjacent words. Instead, there are certain patterns dictating when and how a pair of words will be combined. Most of the time, it is the second word in the group that is shortened, which is known as an enclitic. Much less commonly, the first word used in a contraction has one or more letters replaced by an apostrophe; the shortened form of this first word is known as a proclitic, which we’ll look at separately further on.
Finally, it’s important to remember that the apostrophe marks the letters that are left out of the contracted word; it does not mark the space that was between the words:
- “This plan does’nt make any sense.” (incorrect)
- “This plan does’n’t make any sense.” (incorrect)
- “This plan doesn’t make any sense.” (correct)
Contracting forms of be
The verb be is what’s known as a linking verb, which connects the subject of a sentence to an adjective that describes it or another noun that renames it, and it is also used as an auxiliary verb to form the continuous tense of other verbs. Because of how common and ubiquitous the verb is, it is very commonly contracted with the subject of its clause; it can also contract with the question words who, what, where, when, why, and how, though this is slightly less formal.
Note, however, that we only contract the present simple tense forms of the verb—is, am, and are. While we technically can contract the past simple tense forms (was and were), both have the same endings as the present-tense forms is and are, respectively. Because of this, it is generally assumed that contracted be verbs are always in the present tense.
Let’s look at how is, am, and are are contracted, as well as some example sentences.
(used for third-person singular subjects)
(apostrophe replaces the vowel i-; pronounced /-z/ except after T, in which case it is pronounced /-s/)
(used for first-person singular subjects—only contracts with the word I)
(apostrophe replaces the vowel a-)
(used for second-person singular subjects, and first-, second-, and third-person plural subjects)
(apostrophe replaces the vowel a-)
It’s also worth mentioning that we do not end a sentence with a contracted is, am, or are. For instance:
- “Do you know where dad is?”
- “Do you know where dad’s?”
- “I wonder where they are.”
- “I wonder where they’re.”
Finally, we can also contract is with the adverb so. However, this is very informal, and it is generally only used in responses comparing something to what another speaker has said, as in:
- Speaker A: “Sorry, we’re running late!”
- Speaker B: “That’s OK, so’s Jeff.”
- Speaker A: “Your outfit is really cute today!”
- Speaker B: “So’s yours!”
it’s vs. its
A common mistake is to use an apostrophe with the word its when we want to indicate possession, instead of when writing a contraction of it is.
We usually express possession in writing by adding ’s to the end of a noun, as in Mary’s, John’s, the council’s, the dog’s, etc. (As a matter of fact, this possessive ’s is actually a contraction as well, stemming from the Old English suffix “-es”; however, this “-es” ending fell out of use, and we generally think of the possessive ’s as a distinct syntactic and grammatical construct, rather than a contraction.)
Curiously, the possessive form for the personal pronoun it does not have an apostrophe, just an S—its. However, the possessive form was originally spelled it’s, with the apostrophe. This was dropped in the 1800s, most likely due to the established prevalence of the contraction it is.
In any case, we can only use ’s with it when forming a contraction of it is. If we write its, we are indicating gender-neutral possession for an object, animal, group, etc.
Let’s look at a couple examples just to see the difference more clearly:
- “I’m really glad it’s starting to get warmer; I hate the wintertime!”
- “I’m really glad its starting to get warmer; I hate the wintertime!”
- “The corporation recently revised its hiring policy.”
- “The corporation recently revised it’s hiring policy.”
they’re, there, and their
Similar to the issue with it’s vs. its, the contraction they’re (they are) is very commonly confused with the words their and there. The main issue is that all three have the same pronunciation—/ðɛər/.
Again, we simply have to consider what we mean compared to what we’re trying to write. If we are using the plural personal pronoun they and the verb are, then we have to use the contraction they’re; if we are indicating direction or location, we use the adverb/pronoun there; and if we’re saying that something belongs to a group of people, we use the possessive determiner their. Here’s a handy way of remembering the three different spellings: they’re comes from two words because it has an apostrophe in the middle, while there contains the word here, another adverb/pronoun of direction and location (and we use their if it is not functioning like one of these other two).
- “I think they’re (they are) going to be here soon.”
- “We parked the car over there (direction/location) on the hill.”
- “I don’t believe in giving students standardized tests, because their (possession) scores don’t necessarily reflect their ability to learn.”
Contracting other auxiliary verbs
In addition to the three forms of be, there are four other auxiliary verbs that can also be contracted as enclitics: have (and its conjugations has and had), did, will, and would.
When we contract these four auxiliaries, we use an apostrophe to replace all of the letters leading up to the last consonant sound. We generally only contract these verbs with personal pronouns (except for has, which can attach to people’s names) or question words.
(forms the present perfect tense with any subject except the third-person singular)
(apostrophe replaces the letters ha-)
(forms the present perfect tense, but only with third-person singular subjects)
(apostrophe replaces the letters ha-)
(forms the past perfect tense for all pronouns; does not contract with question words to avoid confusion with did)
(apostrophe replaces the letters ha-)
(forms questions and expresses negative actions about the past; can only contract with questions words, except for when)
(apostrophe replaces the letters di-)
(used to form future tenses, to express willingness or ability, to make requests or offers, to complete conditional sentences, to express likelihood in the immediate present, or to issue commands)
(apostrophe replaces the letters wi-)
(past-tense version of will; does not contract with question words to avoid confusion with did)
(apostrophe replaces the letters woul-)
It’s also worth noting that we do not contract have, has, or had when they are functioning as main verbs (meaning “to possess”). For instance:
- “I have class in the morning.”
- “I’ve class in the morning.”
- “We had lots of pets when we were growing up.”
- “We’d lots of pets when we were growing up.”
- “I think he has a problem with how the class is being conducted.”
- “I think he’s a problem with how the class is being conducted.”
(Note that some dialects, especially in British English, do contract have as a main verb with the subject of the sentence, but this is rather informal.)
should’ve, would’ve, could’ve vs. should of, would of, could of
Contracted enclitics create speech sounds that are often not simply shortened versions of the full word’s pronunciation. Because modern speech relies so heavily on contractions, this can occasionally lead to confusion as to what the proper spelling should be.
By far the most common source of confusion is when have is contracted as ’ve and attached to a word ending in a consonant, most commonly should, would, and could. This results in ’ve being pronounced /əv/ (what’s known as a syllabic consonant), which sounds the same as of when it is unstressed in speech. Because of this, it is a common mistake to think that should’ve, would’ve, and could’ve are instead spelled should of, would of, and could of.
It’s important to be aware that should of, would of, and could of are not correct in English, whether informal, colloquial, or otherwise; they literally do not mean anything. Be careful to always spell the shortened forms as the contractions should’ve, would’ve, and could’ve, and, if you are spelling them out in their entirety, should have, would have, and could have. These are the only correct spellings.
Finally, note that this also applies to the contractions might’ve and must’ve; the ’ve in these is also pronounced like of, but might of and must of are always incorrect.
Contracting not with auxiliary verbs
Another difference from the words we’ve looked at so far is that when we contract not, we don’t omit all of the letters leading up to the final consonant; instead, we only omit -o- and replace it with an apostrophe. What’s especially unusual about contractions of not is that sometimes the first word is altered as well. There’s no specific pattern to help us gauge when (or how) these extra alterations will occur, so we have to memorize them:
- is + not = isn’t
- are + not = aren’t
- was + not = wasn’t
- were + not = weren’t
- have + not = haven’t
- has + not = hasn’t
- had + not = hadn’t
- do + not = don’t
- does + not = doesn’t
- did + not = didn’t
While we do not usually contract not with am, there are some varieties of English (such as Irish and Scottish English) in which this contraction (amn’t) is still used informally.
However, certain dialects of American English use a modified version of amn’t—the highly informal ain’t. We’ll look at this more in depth a little further on, along with other informal contractions.
- can + not = cannot = can’t (In addition to omitting -o-, we also omit the final -n from can.)
- could + not = couldn’t
- will + not = won’t (The -ill from will is replaced with an -o- before taking the contracted -n’t. This strange spelling convention is due to the evolution of the word will from Old English in the 16th and 17th centuries.)
- would + not = wouldn’t
- shall + not = shan’t (In addition to omitting -o-, we also omit -ll from shall, though this contraction is considered old-fashioned in modern English.)
- should + not = shouldn’t
- might + not = mightn’t (uncommon)
- must + not = mustn’t
Note that we do not contract not with the modal verb may.
There are a few contractions that have become the standard form in modern English—that is, the uncontracted form is no longer used (or sounds rather old-fashioned).
One of these is the two-word contraction let’s, which is a contraction of the words let us. This contracted form is only used when expressing a suggestion, as in, “Let’s go to the beach.” It sounds awkward and overly formal to say “Let us go to the beach.”
However, because let’s is solely associated with this meaning, there are other instances in which let us would be the only correct choice. This occurs when let means “to allow or give permission” or “to cause or make.” For example:
- “I hope mom will let us go to the movies.” (correct)
- “I hope mom will let’s go to the movies.” (incorrect)
- “Please let us know the results.” (correct)
- “Please let’s know the results.” (incorrect)
let’s vs. lets
Finally, we have to be careful not to confuse the contraction let’s with lets, which is the conjugation of the verb for third-person singular subjects.
One thing to remember is that let’s is only used in imperative sentences, the sentence structure used to issue commands or, in this case, suggestions. Imperative sentences do not have subjects (the person or thing performing the action of a verb); instead, they simply use the bare infinitive of a verb on its own, as it is being used to command or instruct another person. Lets, on the other hand, can only be used in “normal” (non-imperative) sentences that do have subjects, because it is dependent on the grammatical class of the subject used in the clause.
- “Let’s go get something to eat!” (correct)
- “Lets go get something to eat!” (incorrect)
- “This new technology lets people talk to each other from across the globe.” (correct)
- “This new technology let’s people talk to each other from across the globe.” (incorrect)
When we form contractions from two words, we almost always omit one or more letters from the second one, as we’ve seen in the preceding examples. There are a few instances, though, in which only the first word has one or more letters replaced by an apostrophe. The shortened form of the first word is known as a proclitic.
The most common contraction that uses a proclitic in everyday speech and writing is the very informal y’all, which is used primarily in Southern dialects of American English:
- you + all = y’all
While common in colloquial speech and writing, this contraction should not be used in formal, academic, or professional writing.
Another informal proclitic contraction is c’mon, a combination of the words come + on. When we say “come on” aloud, we tend to reduce the first vowel sound of -o- in come to an unstressed schwa (/ə/). Because this sound is so minute and almost irrelevant in the word pair, it is replaced with an apostrophe (the non-functional silent E is simply omitted). However, this contraction is much less common in written English, and, like y’all, should be avoided in formal writing.
’tis, ’twas, ’twere, ’twill, ’twould
The word it can also be contracted as a proclitic (especially when followed by auxiliary verbs beginning with W), with the vowel I being replaced by an apostrophe. These terms have fallen out of use in modern English, and they generally only appear in poetic or old-fashioned writing. For instance:
- ’tis = it + is
- ’twas = it + was
- ’twere = it + were
- ’twill = it + will
- ’twould = it + would
Be careful, though: when using an apostrophe at the beginning of a word, remember not to use a single opening quotation mark ( ‘ ) instead of an apostrophe ( ’ ) by mistake.
- ’Twas a night we would not soon forget. (correct)
- ‘Twas a night we would not soon forget. (incorrect)
Informal two-word contractions
It is very common in spoken English to create vocal “shortcuts” to help make words easier to pronounce. One of the ways this is achieved is by blending together two normally distinct words into a single informal contraction. Some of these informal contractions have become so prevalent in speech that they have begun to be represented in writing, as well.
In addition to the proclitic contractions y’all and c’mon that we looked at earlier, there are many other pairs of words that are informally contracted into new single words.
As we said previously, we do not contract am and not as we do with the other conjugations of the verb be—amn’t is not acceptable (except in colloquial uses in certain dialects, such as Irish English).
However, there is a very common, but very informal, variant of amn’t that is used in rural dialects of American English: ain’t. In fact, it is so informal that, in addition to representing am + not, ain’t can also be used to represent are not, is not, have not, and has not. For example:
- “I ain’t (am not) joking, kids—get down off that shed!”
- “Look, I know you ain’t (are not) stupid. I’m just asking you to be careful.”
- “From what I heard, he ain’t (is not) cut out for this job.”
- “We ain’t (have not) been to the Grand Canyon before!”
- “All I can tell you is she ain’t (has not) been doing her fair share of the work.”
Despite its prevalence in American English, ain’t is considered extremely informal. While you may be fine using it in conversational speech or writing, you should avoid it in any formal situations in which proper grammar, spelling, and pronunciation are required.
Other informal two-word contractions
Note that, for most of these, we do not use an apostrophe to represent the missing letters; instead, they often act like distinct singular words, often with unique spellings that represent the pronunciation more than the original two words. Additionally, some of these contractions are only used in specific contexts. Because of how colloquial and informal these are, there are many possible contractions that can be created, as well as many permutations of those that are known. We’ll just look at some of the most common examples:
Words being contracted
Spelling and pronunciation differences
don’t + know
Because T appears directly between two /n/ sounds, it becomes slightly difficult to enunciate clearly and is often left out in speech. However, when this happens, the /oʊ/ sound of don’t also becomes arduous, and so it is flattened into a short U sound (as in cut).
Dunno is generally only used with the personal pronoun I. While dunno can simply replace don’t know in a sentence, it can also be used without I to form one-word answers. For example:
give + me
The final -ve of give is not a very strong consonant sound, and it tends to be glided over or omitted altogether when adjacent to the m- of me. In writing, we double the middle consonant to avoid creating a word that looks like it rhymes with time.
We almost exclusively use this contraction when give me is an imperative (command), and, because of its informal nature, it creates a directness not found in the original word pair that can make it seem rather impolite. For example:
going + to
The word to is often unstressed in speech, so it becomes elided into the schwa sound (/ə/) represented by -a. When to comes after going, we often soften the /-iŋ/ sound from “-ing” into a flat /-n/ sound by dropping the “-i-” and “-g;” we then double the remaining N to avoid a word that looks like it rhymes with persona.
We can only use this contraction when to is functioning as a particle introducing an infinitive verb, as in, “I’m gonna go to the park,” or, “Are you gonna be finished soon?” We cannot use gonna when to is functioning as a preposition. For example:
got + to
The word got is commonly used in the phrase have got to to add emphasis to the expression have to (meaning “must”). It’s so common, in fact, that got to has evolved in spoken English into the contraction gotta, with to being essentially reduced down to just the schwa sound (/ə/)—though we keep the two Ts to keep the contraction from looking like it rhymes with quota.
Got is so common in have got to that, in colloquial speech, have is often omitted altogether. Just note that, as informal as gotta already is, it is much more informal for it to be used without have.
Finally, note that when have (or has for the third-person singular) is present alongside gotta, it is almost always contracted with the subject of the clause (as we saw earlier in this section). For example:
got + you (ya)
The word you is sometimes colloquially spelled ya to reflect the quick, offhand pronunciation it often takes in everyday speech; it is this form that attaches to got in this contraction. The slide from the /t/ sound of T to the /j/ sound represented by Y creates a sound similar to /ʧ/ (as in chat), hence the spelling change from y- to -ch-.
This contraction is actually a shortening of the longer phrase “I have got you,” usually meaning “I understand you” (though it can also mean “I’ve got a hold on you”). In many cases it can stand alone without a subject, but in some instances it is still preceded by I, we, or they (and even have, sometimes). For example:
kind + of
The word of is so unstressed in this combination that it is completely replaced by an -a attached to kind to represent the schwa sound (/ə/) it has become.
This informal contraction can be used anywhere kind of is used. For example:
let + me
The final -t of let tends to be softened and glided over in speech, and when it is adjacent to the m- of me, it can be omitted altogether. Once again, we double the middle consonant to avoid creating a “long vowel” sound, which would result in a word that looks like it rhymes with theme.
Similar to give me/gimme, lemme is a contraction of the imperative let me, so it may come across as impolite—though not in every circumstance. For example:
sort + of
The word of is so unstressed that it is completely replaced by an -a to represent the unstressed /ə/ sound, exactly the same as in the contraction kinda. In fact, kinda and sorta are synonymous.
This informal contraction can be used anywhere sort of is used. For example:
want + to
The double /t/ sound that occurs in want to is a bit cumbersome in quick, casual speech, leading to this informal contraction in which they are elided completely. In addition, the function word to is so unstressed in this combination that it is completely replaced by an -a to represent the schwa sound (/ə/).
This contraction can simply be used in place of want to in its normal usage. However, it is also used to stand in for the phrase “Do you want to” in informal questions. For example:
Contracting single words
While contractions are most commonly combinations of two words, they can also consist of single words reduced to shorter forms by omitting letters. There are only a few formally accepted contractions formed from “everyday” words; these simply omit a consonant between two vowels so that the first and last syllables glide from one to the next:
- madam = ma’am
- never-do-well = ne’er-do-well
- over = o’er (generally only used in poetic writing)
- ever = e’er (generally only used in poetic writing)
The most common single-word contractions are appellations, which are additional words added to a person’s name. These may be used to indicate respect for a person (known as honorifics) or to indicate a person’s profession, royalty, rank, etc. (known as titles). Many appellations are shortened (some always so) by removing letters from the middle or end of the word; however, unlike most contractions, we do this by placing a period at the end of the word* rather than using an apostrophe in place of the omitted letters. Also unlike normal contractions, we pronounce these as whole words in speech, not as abbreviations. For example:
- Capt. (short for Captain)
- Cmdr. (short for Commander)
- Col. (short for Colonel)
- Cpl. (short for Corporal)
- Dr. (short for Doctor)
- Esq. (short for Esquire)
- Fr. (short for Father, a priest in the Roman Catholic or Anglican churches)
- Hon. (short for Honorable)
- Jr. (short for Junior)
- Lt. (short for Lieutenant)
- Mr. (short for Mister)
- Mrs. (originally a shortened form of Mistress; now only the contraction is used)
- Prof. (short for Professor)
- Rev. (short for Reverend)
- Sr. (short for Senior)
- St. (short for Saint)
- Sgt. (short for Sergeant)
(*In American English, we always put a period after an abbreviated appellation. In British English, however, this period [called a full stop in BrE] is usually not included, especially if the first and last letter of the contraction are the same as the full word.)
It’s worth noting that all of these are abbreviations, but there is not a complete consensus as to whether they may actually be considered contractions or not. Some sources state that only those with letters omitted from the middle count as contractions (since that is more common for contractions in general), while other sources don’t include any of these when discussing contractions. However, since we are including informal contractions such as ’bout or o’ (which we’ll look at next) that have letters removed from the beginning or end of the word, we’ve decided to take a more inclusive approach.
Informal one-word contractions
English speakers also tend to form many informal one-word contractions, most often by shortening the beginning or end of words; when represented in writing, the omitted letters are usually replaced with an apostrophe. (Just note that these are not considered acceptable in anything except conversational speech or writing.)
“I don’t know what you’re talking ’bout.”
“We’ll be coming ’round a little later.”
“Wow, that’s a big bowl o’ cereal!”
“I s’pose that could work.”
“We told ’em not to get involved!”
Words ending in “-ing” can also be informally contracted by omitting “-g,” reflecting a change in the pronunciation of the ending from /-ɪŋ/ to /-ɪn/, which is slightly easier to say in quick, casual speech. There are too many possible examples to include here, so we’ll just consider a few that we may commonly encounter in conversational speech or writing:
- comin’ (coming)
- feelin’ (feeling)
- goin’ (going)
- lookin’ (looking)
- makin’ (making)
- tryin’ (trying)
till vs. until vs. ’til
One single-word contraction that is prevalent, especially in American English, is ’til—a contraction of the preposition until.
However, this is actually an unnecessary contraction. The confusion is caused by the word till, which is synonymous to (but actually pre-dates) until. Because of the seemingly extraneous “l” in till, many people presume it to be a misspelling, so instead they shorten it to til and add an apostrophe where they think un- should be.
While it is not necessarily “incorrect” to use ’til instead of until or till, be aware that it is a nonstandard spelling and is not preferred by dictionaries. If you are writing in an academic or professional context, it is safer to stick with until or, if need be, till.
Contracting three words
Least common of all contractions are those formed from three words. In fact, there are only two standard three-word contractions that aren’t considered informal or colloquial:
“My favorite part of Halloween is carving the jack-o’-lantern with my dad.”
of + the + clock
“It’s 4 o’clock in the morning! Please go back to bed.”
All other three-word contractions are very informal and would not be considered acceptable in anything but conversational English. Additionally, some of these may be more common in certain dialects than others. In many of these, each of the three words retains one or more of their letters, so we use multiple apostrophes in the place of those that are missing:
could + not + have
“Boy, that interview couldn’t’ve have gone any worse.”
he + would + have
“I don’t see how he’d’ve known about it already.”
I + would + have
“That’s not how I’d’ve done it.”
it + was + not
“I’ve been trying to get more exercise, so ’twasn’t a problem walking home.”
it + will + not
“The show should be starting soon; ’twon’t be much longer now.”
it + would + not
“I’d like to get a new TV, but ’twouldn’t bother me to just keep using our old one.”
ought + not + have
“You oughtn’t’ve come back here, Jonathan.”
she + would + have
“I know she’d’ve preferred to stay home.”
should + not + have
“We shouldn’t’ve gotten mixed up in all this.”
they + would + have
“They’d’ve gotten away with it if those kids hadn’t come snooping around!”
we + would + have
“I thought we’d’ve been finished by now!”
what + are + you
“Whatcha thinking about?”
who + would + have
“Who’d’ve thought it could be so simple?”
would + not + have
“Apparently they used some fancy new special effects in the movie, but I wouldn’t’ve noticed the difference.”
you + would + have
“You’d’ve been proud of her, Mary. She really outdid herself this time.”
Using contractions in formal writing
On a final note, it is worth mentioning that contractions, no matter how accepted or standard, are sometimes seen as undesirable in more formal or professional writing. Contractions are a reflection of shortcuts we take in spoken English, and, as such, they can be considered by some to indicate casual writing. While there are a few exceptions (o’clock and Mrs., for instance, are now the only acceptable forms), if you are writing something very formal (or want to create a more formal tone in your writing), it is best to avoid contractions wherever possible.
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