The Critics’ Corner
by Don Webb
A contributor asks a very practical question. Given the sentence:
She had braided her long black hair into a ponytail.
Can the contraction “She’d braided...” be used? And if so, when?
The short answer is that the choice depends on the context. The long answer is interesting, but it may tell you more than you really want to know!
As a general rule we at BwS prefer the full forms in formal discursive prose, such as essays and narration in fiction.
A side note: e-mail and informal essays such as this one normally use contractions, because they are, strictly speaking, more akin to the spoken language than to formal writing. (Why can “they are” not be contracted in the previous sentence? Give up? Click here.)
Contractions are optional in English. They are shortcuts in speech, but they do more than save time; they allow relative emphasis. Compare the nuances in these answers to the question “Is she ready yet?” in terms of speech:
- “She hasn’t gotten dressed, but she has braided her hair.”
- “She hasn’t gotten dressed, but she’s braided her hair.”
At one level, the full forms distinguish the written language from the spoken language. At another level, the full forms leave the option open; anyone reading the text aloud is free to make contractions as desired.
If a character is speaking the words in the sample sentence, I would expect the contraction: “She’d braided...”
If the sentence is not spoken but is part of a narrative passage, I would expect the full form: “She had braided...”
* * *
Contractions are one of the more complex features of English grammar. Speakers of English as a second language who use contractions correctly are well on their way to high-intermediate or even advanced proficiency.
Regional differences occur. For example, some British writers regularly contract “is” almost everywhere. For example:
“In negative numbers, the square root’s imaginary.”
As a North American, I find that strange. We normally contract “to be,” “to have” and some of the modal auxiliaries after subject pronouns but not after nouns.
The reason is mainly phonetic: the result — such as “she’d,” “she’s,” “they’ll,” “who’ve,” etc. — fits the English syllable pattern of consonant-vowel-consonant. “That is” —> “that’s” and “it is” —> “it’s” are exceptions only in terms of the CVC pattern, which is a preference, not a rule.
Besides, “root’s” — with contracted “is” — creates visual confusion; the form looks like the possessive singular.
Another side note: Some writers seem to have had their knuckles rapped far too often; they make the mistake of turning special cases into a general rule. We’ve received submissions in which every final -s was preceded by an apostrophe: “Agne’s put’s on her shoe’s and sock’s.”
In contrast, some contributors use apostrophes chaotically or not at all. We would frown mightily upon their using the contraction “who’re,” which we don’t like anyway. Do people actually write like that? Honestly, you’d be amazed.
“To have” is usually contracted when used as an auxiliary verb. This line from an old song uses “have” as an ordinary verb, which would sound odd if it were contracted:
Some British ears might expect an emphatic form: “Yes, we’ve got no bananas...”
“Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today.”
Some writers — again, mostly British, in my experience — take contractions a little far, as in:
“I doubt the government’d’ve done that.”
Now, English has a number of syllabic consonants, such as [r], [l], and [n]. But how can anybody pronounce “ntdv”? Coughing and sneezing are normal in English, but mumbling or grunting? How unesthetic!
Another contraction is more common:
“We could do it, but that’d be wrong.”Do people actually say “thattud”? Maybe they’re reflecting a regional British pronunciation of “that” as [δæʔ] where final “t” becomes a glottal stop. The substitution — “tha-(cough)-ud” — doesn’t seem to make things any easier.
To paraphrase Ogden Nash’s poem about a purple cow:
I’ve never heard a thattud.
I never hope to hear one.
But I can tell you with a thud
I’d rather hear than see one.
And don’t get me started on “thattle” (“that’ll”) or “thatter” (“that’re”)! Possible, but they rattle like marbles in a tin can.
Contract away as the context allows. Just make sure you can pronounce it. And remember, the option is a one-way street: if the writer exercises it, the reader has no choice.
Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb