Contractions (Grammar) | Definition & Examples

Contractions are words or phrases that have been shortened by omitting one or more letters. Typically, you can identify a contraction by the apostrophe that is used to indicate the place of the missing letters.

Examples: Contractions
I can’t speak Spanish.

It’s getting dark.

They’re not coming for dinner.

Our flight is at 7 o’clock .

Contractions, which are sometimes called “short forms”, are commonly used in everyday speech and certain types of writing to save us time and space.

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What is a contraction?

A contraction is a combination of two or more existing words that creates a shorter one. Sometimes, a contraction can be a single word (e.g., “kinda”), but in most cases contractions are formed using words that often go together (e.g., “do not” becomes “don’t”). Only specific words can be contracted, like personal pronouns (e.g., “I”, “you”, “they”), auxiliary verbs (e.g., “be”, “do”, “have”), and modal verbs (e.g., “can”, “must”, “will”)

Examples: Personal pronouns, auxiliary verbs, and modal verbs
I’m not too keen on football.

The house wasn’t what I remembered it to be.

She’ll meet us at the park.

In general, we use contractions in speech and writing because they help us convey our thoughts in fewer words.

Contractions are common in both casual and formal speech, as well as informal writing. In formal writing, like college essays, application letters, or business emails, it’s best to avoid contractions.

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How to use contractions

The rules for using contractions vary depending on the type of contraction.

  • Positive contractions
  • Negative contractions
  • Nonstandard contractions

Positive contractions

A positive contraction is a verb construction that doesn’t end in “-n’t” (e.g., “he would join us” becomes “he’d join us”). Positive contractions can never appear at the end of a sentence.

Examples: How to use positive contractions
  • I think we’re almost there.
  • We’re almost there.
  • I think we’re.
Some contractions have more than one possible meaning. For example,she’d” can mean “she had” or “she would”. The correct meaning is usually clear from the context of the sentence.

Negative contractions

A negative contraction is a negative verb construction that ends in “-n’t” (e.g., “he would not join us” becomes “he wouldn’t join us”).

When forming a question with a negative contraction, the adverb “not” is moved to join the modal or auxiliary verb at the start of the sentence.

Examples: Negative contractions in a question
Did he not know? [uncontracted form]

Didn’t he know? [contracted form]

Are they not coming? [uncontracted form]

Aren’t they coming? [contracted form]

Negative contractions can also be used in tag questions (i.e., short questions added to the end of a sentence to ask for confirmation from the listener). When a sentence has a negative tag question, the main part of the sentence is always affirmative.

Examples: Negative tag questions
Your brother lives in Japan, doesn’t he?

You like cake, don’t you?

When using negative contractions, it’s important to bear the following information in mind:

  • Most negative contractions involve two words (e.g., “do not”). The single word “cannot” is an exception. This is contracted as “can’t”.
  • “Will not” is contracted as “won’t”.
  • The verb “may” does not have a negative contraction (“mayn’t” is not a real word).
  • In question form, “am I not?” is contracted to the irregular “aren’t I?”.

    Nonstandard contractions

    Contractions can vary depending on region and dialect. For example, “y’all” (meaning “you all”) and “ain’t” (meaning “am/are/is not”) are common in some parts of the United States, while “amn’t” (meaning “aren’t”) is common in Scotland and Ireland.

    However, these forms are considered nonstandard and are typically avoided in writing. Scribbr’s free grammar checker can help you catch mistakes like these and offer correct alternatives.

    Examples: Nonstandard contractions
    I don’t know what y’all mean.

    Tom ain’t a lawyer.

    Amn’t I great?

    Common mistakes with contractions

    In English, there are numerous words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. For example, contractions are often confused with:

    • Possessive pronouns
    • Possessive nouns

    Contractions and possessive pronouns

    Possessive pronouns are often confused with contractions in writing because they sound exactly the same. However, contractions use apostrophes, while possessive pronouns do not.

    Their and they’re 

    They’re is the contraction of “they are”, while their is the possessive form of “they”, meaning “belonging to them”.

    Examples: There, their, and they’re
    Their house is near ours.

    They’re going on holiday.

    Its and it’s

    Its is the possessive form of “it”, meaning “belonging to it”, while it’s is the contraction of “it is” or “it has”.

    Examples: Its and it’s
    It’s your turn to take the trash out.

    The dog scratched its ear.

    Whose and who’s

    Whose is the possessive form of “who”, while who’s is a contraction  of “who is” or “who has”.

    Examples: Whose and who’s
    I saw my neighbour shouting at the driver whose car was blocking the street.

    Who’s cooking dinner tonight?

    Your and you’re

    Your is the possessive form of “you”, meaning “belonging to you”, while you’re is a contraction of “you are.”

    Examples: Your and you’re
    You left your keys on the table.

    You’re always late.

    Contractions and possessive nouns

    Possessive nouns are formed by adding an apostrophe and the letter “s” to a noun (e.g., “my neighbour’s house”).  Because apostrophe s can also be used as a contraction (e.g., “she’s okay”), people sometimes confuse these forms. However, the context of the sentence can help determine whether it is a contraction or a possessive noun.

    Examples: Contractions vs possessive nouns
    The car’s been [the car has been] to the garage three times this year.

    The car’s engine [the engine of the car] is making a funny noise.

    The dog’s stressed [the dog is stressed] because of the fireworks.

    The dog’s toy [the toy of the dog]  is under the couch.

    Common contractions list

    Here’s a list of common contractions used in English:

    Contracted form Uncontracted form
    I’m I am
    I’d I had, I would
    I’ll I will
    I’ve I have
    you’re you are
    you’d you had,  would
    you’ll you will
    you’ve you have
    he’s/she’s/it’s he/she/it is
    he’ll/she’ll/it’ll he/she/it will (or shall)
    he’d/she’d he/she had (or would)
    we’re we are
    we’ve we have
    we’d we had (or would)
    they’re they are
    they’ll they will
    they’ve they have
    they’d they had (or would)
    let’s let us
    that’s that is
    there’s there is
    what’ll what will (or shall)
    what’s what is
    what’ve what have
    who’re who are

    Negative contractions list

    Negative contractions include the word “not” and negate the verb.

    Contracted form Uncontracted form
    isn’t is not
    aren’t are not
    weren’t were not
    wasn’t was not
    don’t do not
    doesn’t does not
    can’t cannot
    couldn’t could not
    haven’t have not
    hadn’t had not
    won’t will not
    wouldn’t would not
    mustn’t must not
    shouldn’t should not

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    Worksheet: Contractions

    You can practice your understanding of contractions with the following questions. Fill in the correct answer:

    1. (You’re/Your) ____ cooking is amazing!
    2. I (hadn’t/had’n’t) ____ seen them for a long time, and one day we ran into each other at the supermarket.
    3. I (do’t/don’t)__ know (who’s/whose) ____ idea this was, but it was a terrible one.
    4. (It’s/Its) ____ getting late.
    5. (He’s/His) ____ moving to Paris, even though he (does not) ____ speak a word of French.
    6. They (will not) ____ approve our budget.
    1. Your cooking is amazing!
      • The possessive pronoun “your” is correct here, not “you’re” (which means “you are”).
    1. I hadn’t seen them for a long time, and one day we ran into each other at the supermarket.
      • “Had not” is contracted as “hadn’t”. “Had’n’t” is not a real word.
    1. I don’t know whose idea this was, but it was a terrible one.
      • “Do not” is contracted as “don’t”. “Do’t” is not a real word. The possessive pronoun “whose” is correct, not “who’s” (meaning “who is”).
    1. It’s getting late.
      • “It’s” (meaning “it is”) is correct here.
    1. He’s moving to Paris, even though he doesn’t speak a word of French.
      • “He’s” (meaning “he is”) is correct here. “Does not” is contracted as “doesn’t”.
    1. They won’t approve our budget.
      • “Will not” is contracted as “won’t”.

    Other interesting language articles

    If you want to know more about commonly confused words, definitions, common mistakes, and differences between US and UK spellings, make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations, examples, and quizzes.

    Frequently asked questions about contractions

    What are contractions (words)?

    Contractions are short words that are made by combining two words. This is often done by deleting certain letters and replacing them with an apostrophe (e.g., “do not” becomes “don’t”).

    Although contractions are common in everyday speech, they should generally be avoided in formal or academic writing. However, there are exceptions (e.g., when writing dialogue in a story or directly quoting an author who uses contractions in your paper).

    A good rule of thumb is to consider your audience and the intended effect of your writing when deciding whether to use contractions.

    What is the difference between a contraction and a portmanteau?

    Contractions and portmanteaus are similar in that they are both formed by combining two words and omitting some letters. However, there is a difference between them:

    • Contractions usually combine two words that are often used together (e.g., “do not” becomes “don’t”). A contraction has the same meaning as its uncontracted form.
    • A portmanteau is formed by blending two words together to create a new word with a different meaning. For example, “brunch” is a combination of “breakfast” and “lunch.” This is also called a neologism.
    What is the difference between an abbreviation and a contraction?

    Abbreviations and contractions are both used to shorten a word, but in different ways.

    • An abbreviation is formed using the initial letters (or sometimes other parts) of a longer word or phrase to represent the whole. Common examples include “Mr.” for “Mister,” “Dr.” for “Doctor,” and “NASA” for “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” They are used in formal writing as well as everyday conversations.
    • A contraction, on the other hand, is formed by combining two words and omitting one or more letters. The deleted letters are replaced with an apostrophe (e.g., “cannot” becomes “can’t”). Contractions are commonly used in spoken and informal written English.

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    Kassiani Nikolopoulou

    Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.