Contract usage of contractions

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In the past week, I came across an unexpected use of “shouldn’t’ve” in print. My mind stumbled over the mess of apostrophes, and it took me a moment to decipher what the word meant. Pronounced out loud, “shouldn’t’ve” is a word I use fairly regularly, like many people do. Expressing regret over eating an entire loaf of pumpkin bread by lying back on the couch and moaning, “I shouldn’t’ve done that,” would not be out of the ordinary. But it looks wrong and unwieldy in print. Why is this?

In regular conversation, we can easily follow the meaning of these multiple contractions, but anything more than the usual single apostrophe in print looks daunting and takes a moment to decipher. The use of contractions in writing also has a surprisingly large effect on the tone of writing. Using “do not” rather than “don’t” or “should not” rather than “shouldn’t” makes sentences stilted and mechanical. Multiple contractions push the tone in the other direction, creating the effect of slang and casual conversation.

The AP Stylebook has no official ruling on the use of double contractions. Presumably, these don’t come up outside conversational quotes because of their general rareness in print. If a double contraction is hard to read, it is even harder to type or write with the apostrophes in the correct spots. Writers generally don’t resort to using double contractions because they’re rarely produced in print. Thinking about this issue does question the use of regular contractions and how often should they be used in the context of academic or journalistic writing.

With no hard and fast rule, it comes down to the jurisdiction of the writer and the tone of the piece. Formal or academic writing calls for formal writing and fewer contractions. Fiction, conversations or direct quotes require contractions to keep a more casual tone or to realistically convey what was said. The double contraction, while used regularly in speech, becomes a stumbling point even in informal writing. It might be the most accurate word choice, but contract your use of “shouldn’t’ve” in favor of “shouldn’t have.”

Contact Patrick Tehaney at [email protected].