Contractions ain’t all bad

apostrophe-keyEvery now and then I run across a company that doesn’t want to use contractions. Their style guides are packed with warnings that writers can’t, shouldn’t, and mustn’t use them.

Personally I think that’s a crazy way to approach marketing copy. For all their sassy disrespect of formal grammar, contractions are a living part of languages as diverse as English, French, German, Polish, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Latin, and even Uyghur.

They’re also a lot better at selling stuff.

Don’t know much about contractions…

To a writer who isn’t having a baby, a contraction is one or more words that have been shortened by dropping some of their sounds, with the gap typically signaled by an apostrophe. Many, like “let’s,” are mashups of multiple words (in this case, “let us”), while others are words with amputated letters, such as the implied “and” of “nuts ‘n’ bolts.”

Common examples include “don’t” (do not), “I’m” (I am), and the ubiquitous “o’clock” (short for “of the clock,” which nobody’s used for a generation or six). Lesser specimens include informal language hacks like “ain’t” — which depending on the context can mean “am not,” “are not,” “is not,” “has not,” or “have not” — and archaic gems like “’tis” (it is) and “’twas” (it was) which still play a role in keeping the holiday season jolly. There are even “consecutive” contractions — the true black sheep of this already-disreputable word form — such as “wouldn’t’ve” for “would not have.”

So what’s the deal?

The reasons why short-sighted companies ask for contraction-free copy typically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Childhood trauma—Past criticism from overzealous writing instructors (i.e. “That is not proper English!”), whether in school or on the job, causes some marketing people to hunker down in fear of retribution from…well, they’re not really sure who now that Miss Grundy is retired, but there must have been a reason, right?
  2. Contractions are “too casual”—There’s a common perception that contractions are okay for daily speech but for not for anything that appears in print.
  3. Noble (but misguided) diversity initiatives—A desire to make copy more accessible to readers of English as a second language who, by this logic, don’t encounter contractions in anything else they read. How’s that again?

The trouble with hard and fast rules like these is they deprive language of some of the color that makes great marketing work. For example, listen to how stilted these classic slogans sound with their contractions removed:

  • I am loving it. (McDonald’s)
  • Because you are worth it. (L’oréal)
  • It is finger licking good. (KFC)

In each of these examples, adding just a few missing characters deletes a different and more vital type of character. It’s as if all the personality was suddenly sucked right out of ’em.

Not feelin’ the love? Here’s why you should.

Contractions highlight one of the main differences between marketing copy and formal English. They’re based on the way we actually speak instead of the way we’re traditionally taught to write. While they may not be at home in a PhD dissertation, it’s a whole ‘nother story when you’re trying to make a sale. Consumers are more responsive to language that sounds natural, like the recommendation you get from a good friend on the other side of a coffeehouse table. Ban contractions from your copy and it’s easy for you to come off sounding stiff, dull, and even arrogant.

That’s not to say that contractions are right for every audience or situation. “Isn’t” is welcome many places where “ain’t” would be turned away for not wearing a jacket and tie. But copywriters get more leeway to use casual vernacular. What ultimately matters in the marketing arena isn’t what’s “correct,” but what makes the sale.

So if it ain’t broke…

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