One challenging aspect of learning English is that there are different registers: we have spoken English and written English, formal English and informal English. Some words are okay in every register, but others are only okay in speech. Some only sound right in writing.
Contractions are a big part of distinguishing between these different forms of English. If you ever go to an English-speaking university, you'll find that you can't use can't or don't or isn't in your academic writing. Let's take a look at what contractions are and how they can make your English more or less formal.
What are Contractions?
Contractions are words that combine two or more other words together into a new shortened version, usually using an apostrophe ('). Contractions are very common in spoken English. You have probably heard some of these common contractions: I'm, can't, aren't, don't, didn't.
The apostrophe is small, but important. In writing you must use the apostrophe. You do not pronounce it, but it is important in writing. Notice that the apostrophe represents some letters that are missing from the longer form of the word. For instance, the apostrophe in didn't is in place of the O in did not and the apostrophe in I'm is in the place of the A in I am.
Be careful, because not every word with an apostrophe is a contraction. Possessive nouns in English end with apostrophe -s, (Bob's house, Carla's mom) but these are not contractions.
Why Do We Have Contractions?
Contractions originate in speech. We are lazy when we speak English! When we are speaking quickly, we reduce certain sounds (make them shorter and quieter), and over time we elide them completely (we don't pronounce them at all). So over time, she will becomes she'll, I have becomes I've, going to becomes gonna.
When do we use contractions?
This question has a slightly complicated answer.
We frequently use contractions in spoken English, and you should try to use common contractions in your speech to make your English more fluent. We generally do not use any contractions in formal writing (academic papers, for examples).
In between casual speech and formal written English, there is a gray area: we have more formal spoken English, like presentations and business meetings. We have less formal writing, like emails and letters. In this case, you have more of a choice. Some people use contractions and some do not. In this gray area, we should also talk about different types of contractions!
Not all contractions are the same. Some are more standard and acceptable than others. Standard contractions include the following:
You can use these in anything but formal writing. This means they are common in speech, creative writing, emails, text messages, notes, and letters. Try to pay attention when you are reading online. Are there contractions in what you are reading? If there are no contractions, you are probably reading a more formal style of writing.
But there are other contractions that are nonstandard. These contractions have evolved more recently and haven't become as acceptable in written English yet. Nonstandard contractions should only be used in very informal situations (text messages with friends, for instance) or to be funny. Here are some examples:
This is not a complete list. People can often get creative and make their own contractions like these, so watch and see if you can identify new contractions!