Contractions in Business Writing
A client questioned the proper use of contractions in business writing:
Are there any guidelines for using contractions in business writing?
Smart question! There are clear guidelines about contraction use from most style guides, but they can be contradictory. My approach to contractions has evolved over the past few years. To define: a contraction is a shortened form of a word or phrase, with the omitted letters replaced with an apostrophe (should not - shouldn't).
Should Contractions be Used in Business Writing?
Yes, contractions can and should be used, but use them thoughtfully. Years back, some grammarians felt contractions did not belong in formal writing, but that was questionable advice then, and now most (but not all) style guides recommend contractions:
Chicago Manual of Style:
Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable. (“Contractions.” Chicago Manual of Style Online. Section 5.103. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch05/ch05_sec103.html, accessed Mar. 7 2012.)
Modern American Usage:
The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed sincerity—not breeziness. (Brian A. Garner. 2003. Modern American Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. p. 194.)
Federal Government's Plain Language Website:
“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best tool to do that is to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing helps them relate to your document. (PlainLanguage.gov. http://www.plainlanguage.gov/howto/guidelines/bigdoc/writeContract.cfm, accessed Mar. 7, 2012.)
Gregg Reference Manual:
As a rule, contractions are used only in informal writing or in tables where space is limited. However, contractions of verb phrases are commonly used in business communcations where the writer is striving for an easy, colloquial tone. (William A. Sabin. 2005. The Gregg Reference Manual, 10th ed. McGraw-Hill. p. 148.)
All business writing should be matched to your readers. If you commonly write to an international audience, use contractions very judiciously.
Two style guides, specific to non-native writing, advise against contractions:
- Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications: "Avoid contractions. As basic as contractions are to the native reader, they add unnecessary complexity for the non-native reader. For example, contractions that end in 's can be mistaken for possessive nouns, and the 's can be read as either has or is."
- The Elements of International English Style: A Guide to Writing Correspondence, Reports, Technical Documents, and Internet Pages for a Global Audience: "Avoid abbreviations, contractions, and acronyms" and "Contractions have no place in formal writing."
Use contractions in your business writing if it will sound more stilted or awkward not to use them.
I set my grammar check to flag contractions. While I often use contractions because I want to project a warm and engaged voice, I do check my use of them in all documents, and especially in this blog since we have many non-native readers.
When a contraction is flagged by my grammar checker, I ask myself if the contraction would still sound natural written out. If so, I avoid the contraction. If writing out the word or phrase sounds stilted, I use a more natural sounding contraction.
Do not be afraid to use contractions. They do add an engaging voice. But, one can still be warm and engaging without contractions. This article has no contractions, yet I hope both my tone and information has helped your business writing!
About the author
Mary founded Instructional Solutions in 1998, and is an internationally recognized business writing trainer and executive writing coach with two decades of experience helping thousands of individuals and businesses master the strategic skill of business writing. She excels at designing customized business writing training programs to maximize productivity, advance business objectives, and convey complex information. She holds a B.A. in English from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in English Literature from Boston College, and a C.A.G.S. in Composition and Rhetoric from the University of New Hampshire.