How big an obstacle are common contractions for non-native speakers of English? Polls!

I recently had a run-in (OK, a minor disagreement) with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub all contractions from my manuscript – and who specifically objected, not to some fancy or newly-coined acronym but standard, common English contractions like didn’t, it’s, and we’ll.

I’m on record as opposing this so-called rule of scientific writing (and I linked to that record in my frustrated tweet) – because I think the (moderate) use of common contractions makes our writing less stiff, more natural, and more engaging.  Those are worthy goals, and I think contractions can be one tool in our toolbox.  (To be clear: I’m talking only about standard, common contractions, of which English has about 40 – not about unusual or novel contractions like internat’l (for international) or complex acronyms or initialisations like ANOVA, cAMP, or GC/MS.)

Those who’d like to prohibit contractions in scientific writing usually make one of two arguments: that contractions make our writing sound inappropriately informal, or that they represent an obstacle to understanding for readers of English as an additional language (EAL readers).  You probably know what I think of the first argument.  But what about the second?  If it’s true, it’s an important concern.  Today, I’m hoping you’ll tell me if it’s true.

If English is your first language, please don’t leave me just yet.  Instead, skip down the last poll question, which is for you; and then, please share this post with your EAL colleagues and friends.

If you’re an EAL reader, I’m glad you’re here. Will you tell me a few things?  I’ll ask a few simple poll questions, and invite you to say more in the Replies.

Poll questions for EAL readers:

Look, I know the results from these polls won’t constitute highly scientific data, and they won’t merit publication in a science studies or linguistics journal.  Online poll results never do.  But what’s frustrating is that if good data on this exist, I’ve been unable to find it – either because it doesn’t exist, or because it exists in disciplinary literature that’s difficult for me as a working scientist to find or read.  But the lack of data doesn’t stop people from holding strong opinions about the use of contractions in scientific writing*.  This is true, actually, of a shocking number of things in the culture and practice of science.  But before I start a full-fledged rant about that, let me return to the point: as a writer and an editor, I’d like to know if I should change my stance on contractions.  I hope your responses to this post will help me.

Of course, it’s an accident of history that today, it’s non-native speakers of English who find find linguistic obstacles in reading the scientific literature.  Once, much of our literature was in German, or French, or Russian; once even longer ago, we all had to learn to read (and to write) Latin.  And this historical perspective makes we wonder if contractions in English are somehow uniquely difficult.  French, for example, also use lots of contractions (and as a mediocre reader and writer of French, I find contractions don’t make my top-100 problems-with-French list).  So, if you’re a native English speaker, it’s your turn:

So, this is your chance to have your say, and please spread the word.  Am I wrong about contractions?

© Stephen Heard  October 23, 2018


*^As, apparently, does my reviewer… but then, I can’t except myself from this generalization either.  My pro-contraction stance is informed only by instinct, one quick Twitter poll, and my own experience as an additional-language reader of French.

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11 thoughts on “How big an obstacle are common contractions for non-native speakers of English? Polls!

  1. amlees

    I’m a copy-editor and I take contractions out of things a lot, simply because I’ve been told to do so. But I’ve just used three contractions; if I hadn’t (four…) done that, the language would have been too stilted, even for formal writing, which this isn’t (five; I’ll come in again). Ideally, my publisher clients would have a rule that says ‘don’t use contractions, unless the alternative is too clunky’.

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  2. Willa

    As an EAL reader, I don’t have problems understanding contractions in English. However, I have been taught not to use them in academic writing because they are informal.

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  3. Nadia Aubin-Horth

    Something that should be removed from writing (before contractions) is the use of word games (what you call “puns” I think) or variations on the title of some theater play or old children song or proverb, or bible saying… we EAL have never heard about. We don’t get what you are talking about! That’s pure anti-communication right there.

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  4. laanisto

    Also and EAL reader with no problems whatsoever with contractions. And nobody hasn´t ever told me not to use them as well. Some of my EAL colleagues have had problems (at least in my manuscripts) with words like henceforth, therewith, hereinafter etc. (I don´t know what type of words they are, linguistically) – these tend to confuse a lot, and instead a longer synonyms are required, like “from now on” etc.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Ooh, I’m with your colleagues – I avoid those words too. (They’re adverbs, by the way, which in English is a category that’s surprisingly hard to define – the Oxford dictionary has it as “A word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc.”)

      But I wonder if the problem with those examples isn’t so much their adverbial function as that they’re all quite formal and not used much outside of legal writing and the like. The more familiar “from now on” may be longer than “henceforth” if you’re counting words, but it’s shorter if you’re counting the time it takes a reader to deal with it!

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      1. laanisto

        Well, my English teacher from age 7-14, during Soviet time btw, was a firm admirer of pure Queens English, therefore my vocabulary is rather enriched with such words. She was my favorite teacher as well, thus things stuck.

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  5. JMH

    Hi,
    I’m a Spanish native speaker with intermediate English level. English teachers always taught me that contractions are informal, therefore in academic writing they should be avoided. Also, in a science writing MOOC from Stanford, the teacher urged to avoid contractions, together to other points like the ones you put in the poll 3.
    It’s not the same in Spanish or Italian, where preposition+article contractions form a “new word” (such as “De+el=DEL” or “Di+il=DEL” [“of the” in Spanish and Italian]) and are accepted in every text forms, except for some contraction that can be more informal/rare (such as, in Italian, “con + il = COL” [with the]).
    However, returning to English, I think that contractions can be a bit confusing for EAL without a good English level; English is a challenge per se for EAL scientists.
    So, I avoid contractions when writing in English.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks!

      I’m curious: why is “del” (Spanish) “not the same”? Is it because there isn’t an apostrophe? Surely “del” required me, when I learned Spanish, to learn one extra word (over “de el”). At worst, the existence of “it’s” in English requires me to learn one extra word (over “it is”). What’s the difference? I’m probably missing something.

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      1. JMH

        Oh, I meant that is not the same in terms of prohibition of contractions in formal texts. But, thinking a bit more about any difference, maybe contractions in English are informal because they involve the verb (or auxiliary verb), although contractions in Spanish (like “del”) involve just preposition and article. Just guessing.

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  6. Sheila Wilson

    I taught EFL for business in France for 15 years and my problem was always in getting students to use the contractions when they spoke. I never once had the problem mentioned here. Nowadays, as an editor, I find native and non-native speakers alike sometimes use contractions in formal writing. I almost always expand them to use the formal forms that are more fitting to the text. But if it’s a novel, I’ll change full forms to contractions in direct speech.

    I don’t see any connection to the Spanish “del” or the French “du”. Those aren’t optional contractions and have nothing to do with register. “De el” and “de le” respectively are plain wrong.

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  7. Handan Acar

    Hello,
    I’m not a native English speaker. My only problem with contractions is: -‘d. For example; “I’d”. Does it mean “I would” or “I had”?
    Weirdly enough, I have (and I know many non-native speakers have) one basic SPEAKING contraction problem; can’t. You Americans say the same thing to “can” and “can’t”. I always talk and write cannot. I believe it gives a clarity.
    Other than these two, I cannot recall any issue with contractions.
    If there is one thing I could change in editing, that would be definitely preventing using complicated old English words. Even worse is using unusual Latin words! Looking at the dictionary too frequently is that boring that, I prefer to skip the paper. I feel that the authors obviously don’t want to communicate with me. Meh!
    Thanks for asking this. Your book is super helpful. I really like the easy to understand time phrases part.

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