We’re told in some writing courses not to use contractions. Indeed, they really do not belong in formal writing, but when it comes to fiction, contractions are a natural part of the English language. We often speak in contractions. Therefore, when we write dialogue, our characters should use contractions when it’s natural for them to do so.
However, we need to be aware that English is one of the only languages that employs contractions. When our stories contain characters for whom English is not a first or primary language, it may not be appropriate for those characters to use contractions in their dialogue. This is especially true if we’re writing a story in English but the characters in the story do not speak English.
Just to clarify, the reason contractions such as I’ve, you’re we’re, they’ve do not exist in Spanish, for example, is because Spanish verbs contain the pronoun as part of the verb. “You’re (you are)” in Spanish (if we’re using the “to be” verb ser) is eres, which by itself means “you are.” We can add the pronoun tu to give tu eres, but this is never contracted in Spanish to form an equivalent “you’re.”
So, when Spanish speakers learn English they will learn to translate it as “you are” not “you’re” until they become familiar enough with English to understand our contractions. My point is that whether you have characters in your writing speaking their native language (even though you’re writing in English), or in English (as a second language), then it’s not logical it use contractions in their dialogue.
This applies whether the characters are speaking Spanish, German, Russian, or some other language. And it applies whether they’re actually speaking English or not.
Non-native speakers of English will rarely use contractions, hence only those characters who have been speaking English for a long time should be using them. Not using contractions will not make your characters sound formal. It will make them sound the way they should. Pay attention to this so your writing feels more authentic to your readers.
At the same time, be aware that your English speakers who do speak formally will not use contractions most of the time. In writing, this is one aspect of TONE in your writing. Make sure your characters use speech patterns and vocabulary that fits their personality. Your college professor or professional business characters likely won’t say “yeah” instead of “yes.”
Words like gonna, gotta, wanna (going to, got to, want to) are not contractions. They are considered colloquial slang. To understand why they are not contractions, you should remember that contractions have an apostrophe in them that signifies the omission of one or more letters (we’ve = we have, where the apostrophe shows that the letters “ha” have been dropped).
Gonna, gotta, wanna never take an apostrophe. Neither does whatcha as in “whatcha doin’?” (what are you doing). We DO use an apostrophe in doin’ because we’ve omitted the “g” from “doing.”
Here’s a good one I saw misspelled recently: What’d ya mean?
The writer meant to say “What do you mean?” as a slang contraction. The way he rendered it was wrong for two reasons. First, “what’d” is contraction for “what did” and the context of the dialogue was not asking about something in the past. Second, the contraction should be between “do” and “ya” (as a colloquial version of “you.” Therefore, the proper rendering of this is “What d’ya mean?”
Granted, sometimes we find variant spellings in colloquial speech, but this is where the writer should look them up so they’re given an accepted spelling. We could render the previous example as “whatta ya mean” without a problem, but the contracted version (what d’ya) is slightly easier on the reader because “whatta” might throw some readers initially. Good writing means keeping your reader in mind as you write.
APOSTROPHES WITH SMART QUOTES:
The last topic I want to cover involves smart quotes and apostrophes. As it’s supposed to do, an opening smart quote, being it a single one (or apostrophe) or a double quote mark will curve to the right. The problem with this behavior is that a curved apostrophe ALWAYS points to the left. For example, with smart quotes, the phrase “Go get ‘em” has the apostrophe pointing the wrong way instead of “Go get ’em.” This only happens (in MS Word) if the apostrophe falls at the start of the word/contraction.
How do you fix this? You have to do it manually with an ALT code: ALT 0146 (hold the ALT key and enter 0146 on your numeric keypad). The code ALT 0145 gives the oppositely pointing apostrophe.
Your problem will be if you don’t use smart quotes from the start in a piece of writing or don’t change them as you go along. If you use straight quotes and later replace with smart quotes, then you’ll have to search out all of these instances of misdirected apostrophes. I advise keeping a record of the words in your writing that begin with an apostrophe so you can easily search and check them later in your final edits.