Contractions in copywriting – When can I use them?

September 27, 2013 •
Contractions post header image

Contractions. Too few people use ’em.

I think that’s partly because they’re scared of getting it wrong (e.g. using “it’s” when they should have used “its”). And partly, it’s because they think contractions are always inappropriate (i.e. it’s not ‘proper’ writing).

There are plenty of guides out there (like this and this) showing you how to get contractions right. But I’ve never seen one that tells you when it’s appropriate to use them.

So I created one…

Contractions in Copywriting - When can I use them

 

EDIT: You might also be interested in this follow-up discussion

After so many great comments to this post, I wrote a follow-up, answering a couple of questions in particular.

Feel free to comment...
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Ian Watts wrote on September 27th, 2013

Great post! I'd've have thought there's a follow-on post in it …

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

LOL. Now I can't even think of a clever contraction to reply with! ;-)

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Anna Butler wrote on September 27th, 2013

It's funny, so often I'll write a page of copy, or an email, comment, etc. and write my words out in full. Then reading back through I realise how stuffy and rigid it sounds and furiously get happy with the apostrophe key! But I definitely agree there's a time and context for contractions, and I think your list does a good job of explaining these... although I'd still be inclined to use the 2 inner circles for any writing - corporate or not. I think the way we communicate is changing and becoming far more relaxed, so what might have been a bit too casual 5-10 years ago, is now OK.

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Lucy Smith wrote on September 27th, 2013

This is great! It is often hard to know if it is best to use a contraction or not, especially if you are not sure just how formal the client expects to sound...;-) Seriously, very nice work. I'm going to print it and stick it on the wall.

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Belinda Weaver @ Copywrite Matters wrote on September 27th, 2013

Oh God, not ANOTHER INFOGRAPHIC! Joookes. All credit to you for creating one that is actually original. I love using contractions and liberally splash them through my copy. Where appropriate of course. I'm lucky not to have to write super-formal copy but I've had more than one conversation explaining that using contractions in website copy isn't unprofessional. They make it natural and conversational which, in turn, is friendly and readable. High school English classes have a lot to answer for sometimes.

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Erin wrote on September 27th, 2013

Hmm, this has got me thinking! I'm curious how you came up with the circles ... are these your own observations? I used to teach academic writing at uni, and something like this would've been very useful to share with my students. The rule of "never use contractions in academic writing" is shifting slowly, and I'm wondering if some of the inner circle words would be acceptable now. Definite food for thought! I will think of you every time I see a contraction as I wonder "Which circle?" and "Is it appropriate?" :)

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Amanda Gonzalez wrote on September 27th, 2013

Love it, G. Thanks for putting this great guide together. Sometimes, mind, writing the words out in full can be far more powerful, regardless of hipster level. It really is just taking a mo' to decide what you're trying to say (and how you're trying to make your reader feel) instead of immediately going for the contraction.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Awesome! I'm a pin-up! ;-) Thanks Lucy.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Thanks Belinda. You're 100% right about English teachers having a lot to answer for. I've had soooooo many conversations with clients, trying to convince them that contractions are OK. In fact, I originally had a small red dot in the middle labelled "Your high-school English teacher", but I didn't want to muddy the waters.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Hi Erin. Yeah, just my experience. Re academic writing: It's been a while since I did my Masters, but I'm sure I would have used contractions in my essays and thesis. And I KNOW I would if I were writing them now!

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Amanda!!!!! That. Is. Preposterous. ;-)

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Sarah Mitchell wrote on September 27th, 2013

Now why didn't I think of this? It's because I'm too busy adding contractions to marketing copy from fuddy-duddy corporate types. I LOVE contractions. Maybe your next infographic can tackle the hyphen, another misunderstood part of the English language.

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Kimota wrote on September 27th, 2013

I'm a big fan of contractions - when used correctly. They allow copy to read more fluidly, like speech, instead of throwing speed bumps in the way of clarity. However so often they are used incorrectly by either contracting the wrong words or creating mistaken language through common misuse. Such as using "here's" when it should be "Here are..." etc. And also the dreaded "I would of..." "I would've" mix up. So contractions ain't always easy.

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Fred Schebestsa wrote on September 27th, 2013

I always get these wrong. I am going to use this as a resource when we get into a debate about grammar in our copywriting for our new tv ads.

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Charles Cuninghame wrote on September 27th, 2013

Great stuff Glenn. Would you agree that spoken word is more permissive of contractions than written word? E.g you could say "What're your options?" in a radio or TV ad, but you probably wouldn't write it in a print ad?

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Yeah, I think the dark orange circle applies to most. But there are still some extra-formal contexts that would be constrained to just the red, I think.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

I actually first came up with this infographic idea about 4 years ago. But I originally planned it as a series of cups, one inside the other. The idea was that the smaller the cup, the fewer contractions you'd fit in it. Small = more formal. In the end, I decided it would just confuse matters. Especially when venn diagrams exist specifically to illustrate this sort of information! ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Very true Jonathan. It's funny, that "here's" example of yours is one that I think is very close to being acceptable, even though it's grammatically incorrect. For example, "Here's just a few examples..." reads nicely. But "Here are just a few examples..." is a little more clumsy. My money's on that being considered acceptable within the decade!

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Ah TV. There you have even MORE freedom with contractions. Because people can't SEE the contractions, you can use things like "she'd've" and "I'd've". On the formal-to-informal scale, they actually fit in the outer circle, but I removed them because they're too visually confusing to include in any copy the audience will READ. Thanks for reading and commenting too. :-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Ha! Read this immediately after replying to Fred's comment above. Definitely agree. You can get away with more because people hear spoken copy as they hear normal spoken English. They don't have the same preconceptions about what it should be. (Plus they don't get distracted trying to deconstruct complex contractions like "she'd've".)

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Doc Sheldon wrote on September 27th, 2013

I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. You can bet if it came from Dallas instead of Sydney, that infographic would have had "ya'll" in the inner circle. :p

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

LOL. Well spotted Doc. Sadly, I have no idea which circle that would fit in. Maybe I need a US version too. Perhaps even a state by state version!

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Erin wrote on September 27th, 2013

I'm with you, Glenn ... I reckon "here's a few ..." is on the way to being acceptable. And it makes me feel better, because I was interviewed in a national publication a few years ago, and I was quoted (in big quotes) as saying "There's not enough people ..." My mum pointed out to me that it's 'wrong' (I didn't even think twice of it until she mentioned it). On the prescriptivist-descriptivist continuum, I'm down towards the descriptivist end ... PS. Another word I didn't see on your infographic: "Let's" ...

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Adam Franklin wrote on September 27th, 2013

G'day Glenn, Thanks for giving us writers permission to use contractions...!! And not feel guilty ;-) 'Proper' English is rarely the most effective way to write, especially when you've got real people as your audience and not your English teacher! Over the years, you've taught me to unlearn what my English teachers told me, and start writing for human beings. And for the most part that means writing like I speak, and this include loads of contractions. The grammar police will occasionally knock on my door, but at least they can understand what I've written. Thanks for taking a load off my mind.

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Bill Harper wrote on September 27th, 2013

I once wrote something like "You're in safe hands. And with this insurance, so's your car." Someone flagged the "so's" and asked if we were inventing new words. Tried to explain it's a contraction of "so is", but they still wouldn't let it through.

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Anna Butler wrote on September 27th, 2013

I'm always picking myself up on here's/there's (eg. "There's a number of ways to...") because it really is how we're speaking these days - grammatically correct, or not. It's one of those English grammar rules I wouldn't be too upset to see change in line with the fluidity of the language.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Ha! I use it all the time when I speak. And often go to use it when I write. Even asked on G+ the other day what everyone thought about it. Definitely agree "Let's" should be there. Ian's going to kill me! :-( Oh, and I'm definitely a descriptive grammarian...

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Well, we all three agree. It's bound to happen! ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

Really! Oh man! LOL: "wouldn't LET it through." That applies equally to the understanding and the contraction.

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Paul Hassing wrote on September 27th, 2013

Thanks to you, my contractions are now less than 12 minutes apart. You are the copywriter I hope to grow into one day. Kind regards and keep 'em coming! P. :)

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

You are too kind, sir! And don't forget to breathe. It's all about the breathing (or so my wife tells me). ;-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 27th, 2013

LOL. Yep, it's always better to be understood. Even if it is by the grammar police! ;-) No question, conversational English is better in almost all contexts. The formality may vary, but it should always be conversational. Cheers mate.

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Doc Sheldon wrote on September 27th, 2013

Every copywriter knows that the voice in which they write needs to match the audience they're writing to. Like most, I think it's safe to say that my English teachers and profs. over the years would have veins bursting in their foreheads if they saw the way I write on occasion. But there's times that m' style needs to be a bit butchered, 'cause m' readers feel more comfortable with it. Ya'll prob'ly do the same thing. (Okay, you're right... I may abuse the privilege.)

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Desolie wrote on September 27th, 2013

Hear! Hear! - that's about the only thing left to say. It all depends on the context and your audience. Thanks, Glenn, for such a clear picture.

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Micky Stuivenberg wrote on September 28th, 2013

Great resource, Glenn. For me, there's one group of contractions from your outer circle that I'd never use in writing though, however casual the publication or situation, because they look/sound strange to me. They're when'll, where'll, how'll and why'll - and especially that last one, why'll. I can't explain why. Have you yourself actually used those in writing before?

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 30th, 2013

Thanks Desolie. Glad you liked it. And as always, definitely agree, it's all about your audience...

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Contractions in copywriting - A discussion wrote on September 30th, 2013

[…] On Friday, I posted an infographic showing when it’s OK to use certain contractions in your copywriting. […]

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 30th, 2013

Thanks for all your comments guys. Love it! FYI, I've written a follow-up discussion post, specifically to discuss @Micky's question and @Gary's question. https://www.divinewrite.com.au/copywriting/contractions-copywriting-discussion/

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Can I get away with it? 12 common grammatical errors YOUR probably making! wrote on October 1st, 2013

[…] recently created an infographic showing when it’s OK to use certain contractions. It’s a handy guide, especially if contractions aren’t your strong […]

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How do you make technical copy easy to read? wrote on March 7th, 2014

[…] Use contractions (“you’re” not “you are” – See also: Contractions in copywriting – When can I use them?) […]

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33 software tools for freelance copywriters wrote on April 10th, 2015

[…] very interesting discussion. Seems to me the only things copywriters like to talk about more are grammar and punctuation. (And that’s saying […]

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Copywriters, use more contractions! wrote on April 13th, 2015

[…] For a more detailed discussion of contractions, and when you can use them, please see: Contractions in copywriting – When can I use them? […]

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My new boxers, and why you should care wrote on November 28th, 2017

[…] (If you don’t know what’s acceptable and what’s not, when it comes to contractions, check out my definitive, brooks no argument, infographic on the […]

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