Tag Archives: etiquette

Contractions Aren’t Slang: “It’s” is Okay

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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:

Hi, Naomi–

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.

— Clarissa

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?

Thanks again!

— Clarissa

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.

How to be a good house guest

The holidays are coming up here in the USA, when a lot of people travel home or invite friends and family to stay with them. If you’re studying abroad, maybe some friends or a family that you know will invite you to stay at their home. This can be a wonderful experience that you’ll never forget, if your hosts are nice. Of course, everyone will have a better time if you are a well-behaved guest, too.

Everyone’s happy with a good house guest!

10 Ways to be an Excellent House Guest lists some of the things you can do (at least in the US) to be considered a good guest. For #9, I recommend that you ask your host before you strip the bed (that is, remove the sheets and pillowcases). For #10, if you forget, you can always mail a card. You can buy thank-you cards for 99 cents at most drugstores and card shops, such as Hallmark.

You should also ask if you should bring anything. If you’re going to stay with a college classmate, for example, she might not have extra towels or pillows. In addition, if you can’t eat something because of your health or religion, you should let your host know politely. You should also offer to take care of that yourself. For example, “I’m vegetarian, so if you don’t mind, could we go to the grocery store so I could buy some vegetarian entrees for myself?” It’s likely that your host will offer fix appropriate food for you, but you should be prepared to cheerfully take care of yourself if you need to.

Traditional host gifts for going to dinner at someone’s house include flowers, potted plants, wine (if the hosts drink alcohol), candy and chocolates, sweets from your home country, traditional items from your home country, homemade items such as bread, tea, and that kind of thing. If you’re staying overnight or for several nights, the gift should probably be a little bigger, such as a potted plant and some candy together. However, the cost is not as important as just remembering to bring something. You can just say “This is for you; thank you for having me over/thank you for letting me stay with you.” The host will probably say “Oh, you didn’t have to!” or something like that. But, of course, you were probably expected to.

While you’re staying with a host, don’t hesitate to ask for something if you need to. Just be polite about it. For example, if your host asks if you’re cold and need another blanket, say yes if you’re cold! Just be polite and say something like “Oh, if you don’t mind, that would be great.” Your host will feel very bad if he or she finds out later that you were uncomfortable during your visit, so it’s better to ask when you need something. It’s a good time for phrases like “Would you mind if I … Would it be possible to … Is there some way I could … Do you mind if I … Is it all right if I … I hate to bother you, but … ” etc. If your host can’t help you with the problem, then relax, be nice about it, and apologize for bothering them. (Of course, if you need something important such as medication, you should make sure that you get it somehow.)

This year I’ll be staying with my parents and my parents-in-law, so that’s a little different. They’d be insulted if I offered to help pay for the groceries, since we’re family. I’ll still try to help with some of the chores–and of course, I’ll already be bringing presents!

What do you think a good house guest should do?

P. S. Happy Hanukkah!