Contractions: What Are Contractions? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on May 31, 2023

If you're wondering what contractions are and would like to learn how to make and use them, you're in the right place. This article will teach you everything you need to know.

In short, contractions are a way to combine two words to save time and space. They're used in both oral and written communication.

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Contractions?

Contractions are shortened forms of words. A contraction is made up of two words joined together by an apostrophe. You also leave out a few letters when you make a contraction, and usually, you replace them with an apostrophe.

Here are some examples of common contractions:

  • I'm
  • we'll
  • there's
  • y'all
  • won't

Contractions make speech easier and quicker, but they're also used in writing. They're a type of abbreviation but are different from the other types. Check out this article on abbreviations to learn more.

How to Form Contractions

To make a contraction, you'll need to omit some of the letters in the two words you want to join together and replace them with an apostrophe.

Sometimes that's one letter, like in the following examples:

  • she is → she's
  • let us → let's
  • would not → wouldn't

And sometimes you leave out two or more letters, like in these words:

  • might have → might've
  • I would → I'd
  • we will → we'll

You might have noticed from the examples above that you can take out the first letter of the second word, the second letter of the second word, or both. Negative contractions with the word 'not' always remove the 'o' from 'not' and replace it with an apostrophe.

Top Tip! 'Won't' is a little different from the others because it's the phrase 'will not,' meaning that not only have three letters been removed ('ill'), but the letter 'o' has replaced them.

How to Use Contractions in Writing

There's a widespread belief that you shouldn't use contractions in writing, but this isn't strictly true. In fact, contractions can really help you connect with your readers by giving your writing a more conversational and friendly tone.

We use contractions in our articles here at Writing Tips Institute all the time.

The only place you might want to avoid them is in very formal writing, like academic papers or emails with a superior, that sort of thing.

A word of warning, though: contractions can sometimes be confusing in writing because some of them are pretty ambiguous.

For instance, sometimes two different contractions can be spelled the same, like [pronoun] + 'would' and [pronoun] + 'had,' which are both contracted to [pronoun] +'d. Case in point in the two following sentences that both use 'I'd' but have different meanings.

If I were you I'd have apologized sooner. ('I would')

When she arrived I'd already started my presentation. ('I had')

In the same way, the contraction's can mean both 'is' and 'has ':

Don't speak to your brother that way; that's mean('that is')

He's already finished his homework. ('he has')

Another interesting contraction is 'what's.' This contraction can stand for not one, not two, but three different phrases: 'what is,' 'what has,' and 'what does.' Each of the following sentences uses this contraction in one of the three meanings:

What's your backpack doing on the table? ('what is')

That's what's been bothering me. ('what has')

What's that say? ('what does')

The last usage is very casual, so be sure only to use it in informal contexts.

Contractions vs Possessives

Contractions often get confused with possessives in writing because they sometimes look the same.

For instance, contractions might look like possessive nouns because they also use an apostrophe and the letter' s.'

For example:

Sophie's joining us for lunch. (contraction)

Sophie's daughter is coming too. (possessive)

Then you've got the possessive adjective 'their,' which sounds exactly like the contraction 'they're.' They're homophones, in fact.

But they have entirely different meanings, as you can see from the following sentences:

The kids are expecting their usual pizza night.

They're planning to go on vacation in August.

Contractions and possessives are two completely different parts of grammar, so make sure you get the spelling right. Otherwise, your meaning could be misconstrued. 

Types of Contraction

Now that we've covered the basics of contractions and how to use them, let's look at the different types of contractions. I've narrowed it down to five, but you might find them categorized differently elsewhere.

Subject + Verb

A prevalent form of contraction is when you combine the subject with a verb. As a reminder, a subject can be a noun, pronoun, gerund, infinitive, and so many other things. Check out our article on the topic to learn more. And the verbs that can be contracted and paired with a subject are 'is' and 'have' and the modal verb 'would.'

Here are some examples:

  • I have → I've
  • you will → you'll
  • Roger is → Roger's
  • who is → who's
  • we are → we're
  • you would → you'd
  • it is → it's
  • you are → you're
  • we have → we've
  • they are → they're

Modal Verb + 'Have'

Another common contraction is a modal verb with the verb 'have.'

Here are some examples:

  • might have → might've
  • must have → must've
  • could have → could've
  • will have → will've
  • would have → would've
  • should have → should've

Negative Contractions

Negative contractions are frequently used and are made by combining a verb with the word 'not' or, more precisely, n't.

Case in point:

  • Is not → Isn't
  • Had not → Hadn't
  • Are not → Aren't
  • Can not → Can't
  • Was not → Wasn't
  • Were not → Weren't
  • Should not → Shouldn't
  • Could not → Couldn't
  • Did not → Didn't
  • Have not → Haven't
  • Has not → Hasn't
  • Would not → Wouldn't
  • Will not → Won't

Interrogative Contractions

As you might've guessed, you can use interrogative contractions in interrogative sentences to ask a question. Specifically, negative contractions can be used as question tags in positive questions. Sound confusing?

Let me illustrate with some examples:

You've already been to Australia, haven't you?

They shoot horses, don't they?

George goes to your school, doesn't he?

Of course, you can also use contractions to form 'wh' questions. For this, use the formula [adverb] + [verb].

For example:

  • what are → what're
  • where has → where's
  • who is → who's
  • who have → who've
  • what is → what's

You can also use this formula to make contractions that don't ask questions like, for example, 'there is' → 'there's.'

Colloquial Contractions

Last but not least, let's talk about colloquial contractions. These are best kept for casual situations and casual writing because many of them are slang words. They don't follow particular rules like regular contractions, so there isn't always a specific pattern for making them. They sort of just appear in language and get used.

  • you all → y'all
  • is not → ain't
  • I would have → I'da
  • come on → c'mon
  • I am going to → I'm a

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article on contractions. I hope it's helped you feel more confident in knowing what they are and how to use them.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Contractions are shortened versions of two words merged together.
  • You remove some of the words' letters to make contractions short.
  • Most contractions use an apostrophe to replace the letters that have been removed.
  • There are five types of contractions: subject + verb; modal verb + 'have'; negative contractions; interrogative contractions; and colloquial contractions.

If you enjoyed this article, I recommend you check out our Grammar Book. It's a free online database where we regularly upload articles that break down complex grammar topics, just like this one.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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