Using contractions



I am having a discussion with a client about using not using contractions like can't and don't in courses, she wants cannot and do not. 

I prefer the shortened versions as it is more natural English and easier to read and has a style guide for web writing that is an interesting read about how the eye reads words on screen.  I would use the longer versions if it was very formal or an absolute or the world will end scenario.


What are your thoughts?





16 Replies
Christy Tucker

Conversational language (including contractions and first/second person) is generally better for elearning. This is part of the personalization principle of the Multimedia Learning Theory by Clark and Mayer. They explain the evidence in their book eLearning and the Science of Instruction. I'm quoting from the first edition here where they discuss the difference between personalized and formal text:

"Overall, participants in the personalized group produced between 20 to 46 percent more solutions to transfer problems than the formal group." p. 137

Bob S

Write formally, speak conversationally.   If it's a character, quote, example of how to speak with a customer, etc.... then use the contractions as it reflects how it would normally sound.   If it's instruction, information, etc... then more precision never hurts - and informality may be off-putting for some.

Dave Ferguson

Clark and Mayer, in eLearning and the Science of Instruction, report research on "discouse processing" to show that "people work harder to understand material when they feel they are in a conversation with a partner rather than simply receiving information."  (A course narrator is an example of a conversational partner.)

They're addressing more than contractions -- for example, increased use of personalized pronouns (your throat rather than the throat) -- but I think there's relevance. One study they cite changed "the" to "your" in 11 places; a transfer test measured an effect size of .79 -- which means roughly that 80% of the people in a control group would be below the average person who went through the increased-personalization version.

The authors point out that personalization can be overdone: "Hey, dude!  I'm here to teach you all about XYZ, so hang on to your hat and here we go!"

Daniela Slater

I agree with Bob and Dave.  There are two issues here.  One is personalization and the other is contractions (formal vs informal). 

I think personalization works as it puts the learner in the position of the content without over doing it.  "You will learn how to..."

Contractions are best not used when explaining something. "You'll" sounds like "y'all".  "Y'all going to learn how to..."  Just sounds too slang. Not very professional when delivering content, even in e-learning.  Printed material looks better without contractions.  Ok when speaking to someone.

Just my observations and thoughts on the subject.


Richa Jain

Hi Michelle


I'm probably a bit late in replying, but have sailed in the same boat before.

I would actually go with the client company's way of writing rather than the client's personal choice. Also, the demographics would play a major role. If the learners are young, the course content is informal or if the company is trying to project a modern image of itself, I would go with contractions. That is the modern conversational english. However, I wouldn't contract everything.

If the company is very formal, the learners expect the formality I wouldn't contract but would still write conversationally and use active voice where possible.

Just my 2 cents. Hope this helps.

Kindest regards



I'm going to play devil's advocate here and say it depends. I work for a global company and while English is the common language, the level of English language competency varies dramatically. In this environment, it is best to avoid contractions which are not always understood as clearly by non-native English speakers who are still close to an "introductory" level with the language.

Dave Ferguson

I agree with Owen on the "it depends" factor.

My own experience with multinational companies underscores the difference between written language and spoken language (as well as where language in either form falls on a formal / informal scale). In addition, workaday English probably has a higher proportion of subject-verb contractions because we have three forms of the present tense, as well as a future tense that requires an auxiliary verb. Most contractions we have occur between a subject and an auxiliary verb (I'm walking, she'll provide, he'd agree). 

If non-native speakers of English interact with native speakers, whether by voice or in writing, they're going to run into contractions sooner rather than later. The more those interactions are part of a person's job, the more the organization needs to emphasize dealing with those customers and business partners on their own level.


Maria Ginsbourg

Plain Language Action and Information Network put out a powerpoint on PLAIN writing, and it has a slide titled "Don't sound so bureaucratic". One of the bullet items says simply, "Contractions aren't bad."



Another report on plain writing had a more nuanced approach:

"When appropriate, use contractions to foster a conversational tone. While contractions make text less formal, very few documents are purely formal. (An exception is the wedding invitation, in which even the number of the street address is spelled out. Note: Be consistent within a given document and avoid informality when informality is inappropriate. Press releases, public announcements, letters to individuals, and information packets are good candidates for using contractions. Official policy statements and directives can be more formal."