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December 10, 2015

Contractions in Formal Writing: What's Allowed, What's Not

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Asking whether you should use contractions in formal academic writing is sort of like asking whether you should wear a bathing suit to a party—it depends on the type of party. Is it a pool party or a fancy dinner? Therein lies your answer.

Likewise, when it comes to writing, some ways of expressing yourself are more formal than others, and different contexts come with different expectations about what is appropriate. On the informal end of the spectrum you have texts between friends. In the middle of the spectrum you have things like these blog posts. On the formal end of the spectrum, you have the scholarly writing you do for classroom assignments, theses and dissertations, and publications.

Contractions are a part of informal writing. Thus, avoid contractions in scholarly writing, except for under the following circumstances:

  • If you are reproducing a direct quotation that contains a contraction (e.g., a quotation from a research participant), leave the contraction as-is.
  • If you are writing about contractions (e.g., in a paper about language), naturally you must be able to use contractions as linguistic examples.
  • If you are reproducing an idiom that contains a contraction (e.g., “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”), leave the contraction (no need for “do not count your chickens…”).
  • If you are making an off-the-cuff or informal remark within an otherwise formal paper, it is okay to use a contraction as part of your writing voice. You might find this kind of remark in a footnote or a parenthetical statement. Scientific writing should be formal but it doesn’t have to be stuffy. It is okay to have a moment of informality as long as the overall tone is appropriately formal.

Do you have additional questions on the use of contractions? Ask them here!

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