Do you often use contractions when you speak? Contractions are words like it’s, I’m, they’re, we’ll, couldn’t, etc. (standing for the phrases it is, I am, they are, we will, could not, etc.). You probably quickly learned to use contractions in spoken English.
You may have been told that contractions are slang or informal language. That’s not really true (at least for the USA). If you go to a formal presentation at a conference, the speaker will almost always use contractions. Contractions occur in most forms of writing, too. If you’re writing a blog or e-mail in English, you should use contractions normally. If you’re writing a regular e-mail to your co-worker, professor, or friend, contractions are 100% fine to use. If an e-mail is extremely formal, such as proposing a new contract for a business, you might not use contractions. If you’re writing an essay or paper for school, you will probably not be allowed to use contractions. Here are some examples of e-mails using contractions:
I haven’t received the report from XYZ company yet, so I won’t be able to send you the data today. I hope that’s all right. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do.
Dear Dr. Lee,
Thanks for sending us the website about the museum exhibition. It sounds like something we shouldn’t miss, so I was wondering if I could e-mail the other students and arrange an informal trip. I’d be willing to drive, since I’ve recently gotten a new minivan. Would that be all right with you?
These e-mails are neither formal nor casual, but they use contractions in order to sound natural and friendly.
Caution: “Reduced speech” is different from contractions. You should not use reduced speech in business or school writing. Reduced speech includes words and phrases like gonna, woulda, hafta, ‘em, etc. We frequently use these when we speak, but they are considered too casual for most forms of writing. (It’s OK to use these in e-mail to your close friends, of course, especially if your friends also use reduced speech in writing.)
Tip: If you work for a company where the main language is English, look at some e-mail and memos from the important people at the company. If they use contractions, and you don’t, you should probably start to use contractions. Why? Well, when most people in a group use contractions and one person doesn’t, it makes that person look unfriendly, awkward, and tense. (Unless you’re the boss, of course!)
In the USA, most companies and universities have their own “culture,” and it’s important to pay attention to that culture. When you read a book on American manners or business, you should always remember that your company’s (or school’s) culture is more important than any rule given in the book. I often laugh at books on American manners and behavior, because their advice is sometimes not true for everyone–the writer came from the East Coast, but I live and work on the West Coast (where we do things differently). Sometimes the writer’s advice is old-fashioned.
This is why, even if your books or teachers told you that contractions were bad, you should think about using them more often. Remember, always check what you’ve learned against what you see in the real world. If the real world seems different from the rules you learned, you should ask somebody to explain. If you can’t ask anybody, then it’s up to you to decide which way is right for you.
Next time, we’ll talk about some things that are NOT okay in business or school e-mail. If you have questions, leave me a comment or e-mail me at clarissa ( at ) readableblog ( dot ) com. What do you want to know about?
P. S. Send is a good book on current e-mail etiquette. It’s written at an advanced level, for native speakers, but it’s a very useful book.