How to Use Contractions in a College Essay

Subtleties matter in writing and they surface with the use of contractions.
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From an early age, students are taught to write “like they talk.” This is good advice and often means that writers rely on contractions to convey the verbal shorthand that is so evident in most people’s speech patterns. College essays pose an interesting challenge since academic writing is known as “formal” writing in which contractions are frowned upon or even prohibited. There are exceptions, however, and learning how to use contractions effectively will polish your skills and bolster your confidence.

Check with your instructor about her “written rules of the road.” Some English teachers follow the dictates of formal English at all times and make no exceptions, no matter what the assignment. Keep your essay — and your grade — on track by following her rules.

Always use contractions when you are quoting someone directly or paraphrasing their words in a college essay. Quotes are an important way of capturing a writer’s manner of speech. Consider what would be lost if you spelled out the contractions — and smoothed the language — in this earthy quote: “I’m tellin’ you: They’re not gonna do what they don’t wanna do.”

Use contractions in college essays in which you are allowed to use the first-person “I.” These personal, revealing essays include the narrative and descriptive essays and might also include the comparison-contrast and example essays. In personal essays especially, contractions reflect the way people really speak.

Use contractions consistently throughout your essay and especially within the same sentence. For example, notice the inconsistency in writing: “I’ll tell them when we are together: we’ll persevere or we are doomed.”

Listen to the cadence of your words. When you wish to capture enthusiasm, it might be better to say, “It’s great!” than “It is great.” Likewise, when you wish to express urgency, saying, “No, they don’t!” might be preferable to saying, “No, they do not.”

  • Just as some parents pronounce their child’s full name – “John Michael Smith” – when they are angry, so should a writer spell out two words for emphasis instead of using a contraction. Spell out those words you wish to emphasize. The “not” in the sentence “I have not crossed the line” packs greater assertion than saying, “I haven’t crossed the line.”

With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.