Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda: Using Apostrophes to Indicate Missing Letters

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Last year, in one of our Word for Wednesday posts, Hugh took a look at some apostrophe catastrophes. Over the next two posts we’re going to take a look at how to use these sneaky little punctuation marks correctly.

What is a contraction?

A contraction is a shortened version of a word created by the omission of a sound. In writing, the omission of a sound (which is usually a vowel) is marked with an apostrophe.

It is important to note that while contractions are acceptable in conversation and informal writing, it is better to avoid them in formal writing.

What are some commonly used contractions?

Here is a list of contractions commonly used in English. Notice how the missing letters are replaced with an apostrophe.

are not – arent
could have – couldve (not could of!)
cannot – cant
could not – couldnt
did not – didnt
do not – dont
had not – hadnt
has not – hasnt
have not – havent
he had/would – hed
he shall/will – hell
he is/has – hes
how did/had/would – howd
I had/would – Id
I shall/will – Ill
I am – Im
I have – Ive
is not – isnt
it is/has – its
let us – lets
must not – mustnt
shall not – shant
she had/would – shed
she will/shall – shell
she is/has –shes
should have – shouldve (not should of!)
should not – shouldnt
that is/has – thats
there is/had – theres
they had/would –theyd
they will/shall –theyll
they are – theyre
they have – theyve
we had/would –wed
we are – were
we have – weve
were not – werent
what shall/will – whatll
what are – whatre
what is/has – whats
what have – whatve
where did/had/would – whered
where is/has – wheres
who had/would – whod
who shall/will – wholl
who are – whore
who is/has – whos
who have –whove
will not – wont
would have – wouldve (not would of!)
you had/would – youd
you shall/will – youll
you are – youre
you have – youve

What about ‘ain’t’?

Many contractions are the result of elision which is the omission (or ‘dropping’) of a sound when speaking in order to make pronunciation easier. You can really hear this in words like ‘shan’t’ and ‘won’t’ which do not sound like the words they are made up of (unlike ‘couldn’t’ or ‘she’s’). The point is ease of speech – ‘shan’t’ or ‘won’t’ roll much easier off the tongue than ‘shalln’t’ or ‘willn’t’!

As you can see above, many of these shortened words have become part of Standard English - ‘ain’t’, however, is not one of them. No matter how many times you hear ‘ain’t’ said aloud, you should never write it (unless, of course, you are writing a creative character piece).

Below is a list of slang contractions that you may hear (or even say!), but should never write:

ain’t – am not, is not, are not, have not (and in some dialects: do not, does not, did not)
gimme – give me
gonna – going to
gotta – got to
kinda – kind of
lemme – let me
wanna – want to
whatcha – what are you

In this age of technology, it’s particularly important to be vigilant about slang contractions because the lines between formal, informal and creative writing are increasingly blurred. While using ‘gonna’ in a personal blog post (or even a newspaper headline) might show character, it will almost certainly lose you marks in an exam, or convey unprofessionalism in a business environment.

Next week we’ll take a look at further uses of that annoying apostrophe – so stay tuned!


12 May 2014
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