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As a general rule of thumb, the more formal a text is, the more one should avoid using contractions – and vice versa. But if a certain text is informal enough to allow contractions, is it better to be consistent and use all established contractions throughout the text, or are there certain contractions that are more ok than others, so that in certain texts it would be ok to use, say, 'll for will but not, say, n't for not?

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    There's no need for consistency, even with the same contraction. You can use do not in one sentence and don't in the next, and you would generally do that if you want the do not to be more emphatic than the don't. Oct 18, 2022 at 16:05
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    There is no way one can guess at this. It depends on who is speaking/writing to whom and where. That said, bear in mind that contractions used in speech (The workers'll start early in the morning in winter) would seem odd whereas: The workers can't start that early in the winter. would not. But: They'll leave early if possible, is OK. So, some of what I call speech-transcription contractions, I would avoid, such as: could've, would've, [noun]'ll.
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2022 at 16:07
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    Geoff Lindsey (an English phonetician) has a video on his youtube channel about contractions and the situations in which they are and are not used, in both formal and informal speech. Writing is a little different but many of the same conclusions apply. I don't have time to find relevant quotes so can't turn this into an answer (this would be needed in case the link becomes broken), but you can find it here: youtu.be/rNcS0S__WlQ
    – Tristan
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:14
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    There is no contraction n't for not. Of course, there is a contraction can't for cannot, don't for do not and so on, but it does not make sense to say that n't is a contraction for not. One reason why it's misleading to think of n't as a contraction for not is that one cannot say although n't or and n't for although not and and not, neither can one start a sentence with n't. Another reason is that e.g. don't is not obtained from do not by replacing not with n't (this would result in something that would be pronounced doont).
    – Pilcrow
    Oct 19, 2022 at 22:42
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    @Pilcrow: we don't start a sentence with the contraction 's, and we can't contract is after every word, either (we don't say and's for and is), but it's perfectly reasonable to say that 's is a contraction for is. So I guess the question is: are wasn't, weren't, isn't, aren't, wouldn't, shouldn't, couldn't, mustn't, oughtn't, hasn't, haven't, didn't, needn't, mightn't (rare) usen't (rare), mayn't (rare) enough examples to say that n't is a contraction for not? Oct 22, 2022 at 13:26

3 Answers 3

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There isn't any rule that says you have to consistently use the same contractions throughout your text. Even in informal speech, native speakers may not be consistent.

In fact, it isn't even a rule that contractions are strictly informal, just something that exists in certain style guides. For example, "needn't" always sounds quite formal to me, for the reason that "need not" is not used quite so much in informal speech and so can sound quite formal contracted or not.

One reason to not use a contraction is that individual words can carry more emphasis. Although not a contraction in the sense that you mean, consider the difference between "there's nothing in the cupboard" and "there's not a thing in the cupboard". We often use 'nothing' to mean 'nothing of significance'. Spelling it out that there is "not a thing" better describes a complete absence of anything. Likewise, "I do not!" is far more emphatic than "I don't!".

In summary, there's no reason to insist on absolute consistency, but focus on naturalness - if you would say a contraction, and you want your written text to sound how you would speak, then by all means write a contraction!

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    "not a thing in the cupboard" sounds very odd to me (Standard Southern British native speaker), it comes across as someone being especially melodramatic and adopting a very old-fashioned (almost Austen-like) tone for humour. I'd actually be less inclined to interpret it literally than "nothing in the cupboard". Otherwise I agree entirely with this answer
    – Tristan
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:11
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    @Tristan: it sounds perfctly natural to me (Standard Southern British native speaker).
    – TonyK
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:32
  • @TonyK interesting! If wanted to emphasise it I'd probably go with "isn't anything in the cupboard" instead
    – Tristan
    Oct 19, 2022 at 9:34
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    I think one has to make the distinction written/spoken here. Without that, I see no point in this exercise. Obviously, anything that's actual speech, can be contracted completely, so to speak. However, contractions allowed in some formal writing is not speech.
    – Lambie
    Oct 19, 2022 at 14:47
  • @Tristan I did wonder about leaving that in... it isn't the kind of contraction we are talking about, but I felt it made the point. The fact you think it sounds 'Austen-like' does add to the point that contractions make the language less formal, which I don't disagree with - I'm just arguing it isn't a rule.
    – Astralbee
    Oct 19, 2022 at 16:13
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I think there's another aspect that others haven't mentioned — there are some contractions that are considered nonstandard in writing. Often these are double contractions — for instance, in casual speech, "wouldn't've" is very common for "would not have", but in writing, while you will sometimes see it (for example, Lewis Carroll's work uses them a lot), it'd be more common to write "wouldn't have" (and of course, a common error by native speakers is writing *"wouldn't of", which more closely matches with the spoken form, but this is considered by most as erroneous and so you wouldn't expect to see it in any but the most informal writing).

There are others that are considered colloquial, for example "ain't" and "amn't" both appear in certain regional dialects as a contraction of "am not", but would be unusual to find in writing other than where the local dialect is deliberately being invoked; the only standard contraction of "am not" is "aren't" which (with that meaning) usually only appears in the set phrase "aren't I[...]?".

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  • I feel like there's probably more nonstandard contractions which would only appear in the most informal of writing but I can't think of any off the top of my head; feel free to suggest edits if you can!
    – Muzer
    Oct 19, 2022 at 12:42
  • tangential: why isn't there a double contraction "it's'nt"?
    – user253751
    Oct 19, 2022 at 15:59
  • @user253751 I suppose just because that doesn't match natural speech; not sure why it isn't used in natural speech (I don't think there's any phonetic reason why, though I could be missing something), but common contractions in natural speech would be 'snot or 'tisn't. Neither of these are contractions I'd expect to see in standard written English of any formality.
    – Muzer
    Oct 19, 2022 at 17:01
  • aren't also appears in I, who aren't ... Oct 22, 2022 at 13:33
  • @PeterShor sounds wrong to me, but maybe in some dialects that would work...
    – Muzer
    Oct 23, 2022 at 13:40
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In a context where the level of formality allows the use of contractions, it's not necessary to do anything consistently, and that includes the use of contractions.

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