When and why you’d want to
In a previous post I wrote about knowing the ‘rules’ and breaking them – how many grammar guidelines taught in school as hard-and-fast rules are merely style choices. I even mentioned how I was taught to never, ever use contractions in writing. Thankfully I know now that there are times to avoid contractions and times to embrace them.
Because writing without contractions is formal – stiff, even – there are a lot of instances where that style is called for. If you’re writing a business letter, a report, or a formal essay for school, keeping contractions out is good practice. But in many cases – personal letters, informal articles, and blog posts, for example – avoiding the use of contractions artificially creates a distance between you and the reader that you (probably) don’t want.
Prose is a particularly intimate form of communication, closer and more personal than many people realize (which author Mary Robinette Kowal has likened to telepathy.) It’s a one-way communication, but the nature of the story isn’t solely in the hands of the writer. Rather, each reader’s experience is a unique merging of the words written on the page and their individual engagement with those words on a mental landscape where writer and reader meet.
Which is why it’s so important as a writer to choose carefully the narrative voice you use. By not using contractions, you create a barrier between you and the reader. That can be overcome, but it makes it more difficult to make a connection. (And often it’s done for no other reason than that’s the way many people were taught they had to write.)
Because real people communicate in contractions, they’re used all the time in dialogue and characters’ thoughts. Similarly, contractions tend to be used in first-person narratives, because you want the reader to experience the narrator as a real person (rather than as a fictional construct, as all narrators truly are.) The exception would be when you want to make the specific point that the character is stiff, reserved, distant.
There’s a tradition, though, with the omniscient point-of-view (or a limited third-person perspective) to avoid contractions in order to create the impression of a removed and objective storyteller. But when writing from first-third POV, as a lot of modern fiction is, the idea is to capture both the intimacy of a first-person perspective and the reliability of a third-person narrator. And using contractions in this style of prose is not only acceptable, but preferable, since it helps to establish that you’re inside the head of a particular character. It also creates a voice that can reach the reader’s thoughts and emotions on a deeper level.
Ultimately, it’s a style choice – though it seems many writers eschew contractions merely because they think that’s the way they’re supposed to write, rather than making a choice based on what’s right for the story they’re telling. But many novelists, including many of my favorite and most respected authors, use contractions in their third-person narrative prose – Charlotte MacLeod, James D. Doss, Carola Dunn, Rex Stout, Rhys Bowen, and Dorothy Gilman, to name just a few. So I feel I’m in good company.