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Contractions or the Lack Thereof | Liar Liar

Pamela Meyer quote formal language contractionsWe begin our basic patterns of deception with an easy fix: lack of contractions.

In Real Life

Authentic human speech patterns include slurring words together. We have always had contractions in the English language. It’s how we got words like “never” (OE not + ever), “none” (OE not + one), and “neither” (OE not + whether). Contractions contributed to the loss of inflectional endings, and they led to our genitive case getting marked with -’s instead of its full syllable -es from a thousand years ago.

A lack of contractions, then, points to inauthenticity. Liars often deny without using them, “I did not,” rather than “I didn’t.” The liar instinctively emphasizes their innocence with that non-contracted “not.” The truly innocent person, in contrast, has more interest in quickly refuting a false allegation rather than trying to convince their listener of their sincerity.

Thanks to hundreds of years of grammar classes, we associate non-contracted speech with higher formality. If a speaker takes the time to enunciate all their words instead of contracting them together, they must mean Serious Business.

Or, they’re trying to assert authority so that people won’t question them.

Which, generally, hoists a red flag that something is amiss.

Contractions In Writing

The “No contractions” rule applies to high school essays, enforced by teachers who want their students to treat assignments like the Serious Business they are. It doesn’t apply to fiction or creative nonfiction.

Use of contractions brings more authentic speech patterns to dialogue and narration alike. It should be the rule of thumb rather than the exception.

What exceptions, then, exist? I can think of two off the top of my head.

  1. Liars. If you have a character telling lies, giving them a non-contracted denial is a nice, subtle cue.
  2. Foreign language learners. Speakers of English as a foreign language are less likely to contract words early on in their language learning. Similarly, if you have a character learning a second language, but where that language is still represented through English (a fantasy language, for example, where you’re not about to pull a Tolkien and your readers wouldn’t understand it even if you did), use of more formal language patterns can give an impression of careful speaking.

I’m not the language police. Ultimately, each writer decides how best to implement contractions in their work. But if you abstain, don’t be surprised when I assign crazy accents to your characters to balance out their stilted speech patterns.

Caveats

  • Triple contractions are seeing more use, but proceed with caution in this vein. Words like shouldn’t’ve, couldn’t’ve, wouldn’t’ve, I’d’ve, we’d’ve, they’d’ve, etc. have more traction in their written forms than the less common I’ll’ve, we’ll’ve, she’ll’ve, won’t’ve, etc., but any and all of these can trip up a reader if used too liberally. We’ve not yet gotten to the point of quadruple contractions, that I know of, but I’d’n’t’ve approved if we had.
  • Lack of contractions ≠ “archaic.” Shakespeare used ’em a’plenty. Archaic contractions are different than modern ones, however, because their clitics (the left-over word fragments that attach to their stronger friends) formed from the front end rather than the back. For example, archaic contractions of “it is” and “it was” give us the now-archaic ’tis and ’twas, as opposed to the modern contraction it’s.

Long story short, if you need someone’s blessing to feel comfortable using contractions in your work, consider it bestowed. This is an easy fix for better authenticity.

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