Contractions are unavoidable. They appear in everything from songs and articles to product packaging. (Even the tiger on my box of breakfast flakes is telling me that “They’re great!”) But are contractions okay in business writing? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s frustrating, I know!
Here are three questions to ponder as you decide if you should use contractions in your own business writing.
1. Does your organization allow for contractions?
Your organization’s in-house style guide may provide contraction guidelines. However, many organizations haven’t taken a stance on contractions and instead defer to their primary style guide or allow employees to make independent contraction choices, which can obviously lead to content chaos. Business writing and chaos don’t mix well, so let’s assume that all of those undecided organizations lack a contraction policy because they’re following their primary style guide. Which brings us to the next question…
2. Does your primary style guide allow for contractions?
The four most popular style guides differ on contractions:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) and the Modern Language Association (MLA style) allow for “thoughtful” contraction usage.1
- The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style) prefers to avoid contractions in formal writing.2
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) doesn’t address contraction usage, but the APA Style blog confirmed that the APA accepts contractions in a few limited scenarios.3
3. Is your content formal, semi-formal, or informal?
Contractions create a conversational tone that is more appropriate in semi-formal and informal writing than in formal writing. However, determining formality levels isn’t always easy because the business world doesn’t have universal rules dictating which types of content should be formal, semi-formal, or informal. For example, some company websites are reserved and tightly edited while others are casual and seemingly unedited. Despite this ambiguity, here are some general guidelines to consider:
- Formal writing: White papers, case studies, proposals, reports, and instructional material are typically formal, meaning that they follow established grammar and style guidelines as closely as possible.
- Semi-formal writing: Blog posts, web content, marketing material, and social media posts are generally semi-formal, meaning that they follow established grammar and style guidelines while allowing for intentional creative deviation. Semi-formal content normally maintains a relaxed tone meant to connect with the reader on an emotional level while still being informative.
- Informal writing: Off-the-cuff remarks and other unedited responses are examples of informal content. Truly informal business writing is rare because even the most unscripted-sounding content has usually been revised—at least a little bit.
Remember, these are just guidelines—and exceptions are lurking around every corner of the Internet.
Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that I, myself, have waffled between using contractions and not using them. After careful consideration, I have decided to use them when appropriate because my primary style guide is The Chicago Manual of Style, which, as mentioned above, allows for thoughtful contraction usage. In addition, I consider this blog to be semi-formal rather than formal because I always strive to convey a conversational tone that makes grammar and writing issues accessible to a general audience.
My next post will offer some tips for avoiding awkward contraction usage in your business writing and other semi-formal content—because awkwardness is, well, awkward.
1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 5.105; “Does the MLA Allow the Use of Contractions in Scholarly Writing?” Ask the MLA, The MLA Style Center, last modified May 25, 2017, https://style.mla.org/2017/05/25/contractions/.
2. The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (New York: Associated Press, 2019), 68.
3. Chelsea Lee, “Contractions in Formal Writing: What’s Allowed, What’s Not,” APA Style (blog), December 10, 2015.