CONTRACTIONS AREN’T BAD

I’ve often cited various common writing habits as being indicative of less experienced writers, and a few—like excessive capitalization of common nouns—as peculiar to the SF and fantasy genres. Well, here’s another one, and the one I seem to see most often, especially in fantasy: a startling lack of contractions.

We all know what a contraction is. A contraction is a way to merge two words often found together into a single word, by use of an apostrophe. Do not becomes don’t, did not becomes didn’t, that is becomes that’s. If you listen to yourself speak, and list n to those around you, you’ll find that we tend to speak in contractions almost exclusively, unless we’re particularly sensitive to emphasis: I do not want to go to work this morning. sounds more emphatic than: I don’t want to go to work this morning.

So then why do so many SF and fantasy authors—authors in general—turn this upside down?

Am actually asking. I don’t know.

I’ve seen various web sites and other sources advise people against using contractions ever, which is just weird. But this tends to come with a caveat attached: in formal or business writing.

If you’re working as a technical writer and your style guide says no contractions, okay, then no contractions. Though you may want to think about whether or not that’s one of the reasons no one ever reads technical documentation or memos.

 

I don not understand why I can not say that I do not understand why I can not say don't or can't, yet somehow I am able to love this cat.

I do not understand why I can not say don’t or can’t, yet somehow I am able to love this cat.

I’ve long puzzled over what I call “The Commander Data Effect.” I’ve seen this repeated over and over again, before and after Mr. Spiner met Mr. Roddenberry. In Star Trek: The Next Generation we’re asked to accept that Dr. Soong has invented a computer (placed in Data’s head) that is capable of creativity, that’s sophisticated enough to think: I wonder what it feels like to be a human? yet can not say “can’t.” Ask your software developer friends which would be easier to code: Here are a list of words that can be formed into contractions and a list of exceptions (“I’m not sure they are.” can not be “I’m not sure they’re.”) or: Make this computer understand that it’s a computer.

One can be achieved right now. The other may still be centuries off.

Yes. The way Data speaks makes no logical sense.

And likewise it makes no logical sense to see science fiction and fantasy as in any way analogous to business memos or technical specifications. It just isn’t. Or, one might say, it simply is not.

This is especially true in dialog. In general, all bets are off once a character begins speaking—all rules are suspended. Very, very few people speak in perfect English, and those who try are seen as haughty, impersonal phonies. Think I’m wrong? Spend a week doing your level best to speak only in perfect English. In complete sentences. With no contractions, colloquialisms, or idiom at all. First of all, I daresay you won’t be able to do it, but if you do, I’ll be curious to see how many seconds go by before somebody asks, “What’s up with you? Why are you talking like a robot?”

So why are your characters talking like robots? Especially a robot that anyone with a rudimentary understanding of computer software would know wouldn’t actually talk like that anyway?

A formal speech pattern might work very well for a particular character, to show off the educated, aristocratic nature of where and/or when that character comes from, but even then, only if that’s set in contrast to another character with a more colloquial, jocular speech patter. I use this clip from Zane Grey’s classic Western Riders of the Purple Sage in my dialog classes:

 “Jane, there’s a fellow out there with a long gun,” he said, and, removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.

“Jane, there’s a fellow out there with a long gun,” he said, and, removing his sombrero, showed his head bound in a bloody scarf.

“I heard the shot; I knew it was meant for you. Let me see—you can’t be badly injured?”

“I reckon not. But mebbe it wasn’t a close call! . . . I’ll sit here in this corner where nobody can see me from the grove.” He untied the scarf and removed it to show a long, bleeding furrow above his left temple.

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf over it just a moment till I come back.”

“It’s only a cut,” said Jane. “But how it bleeds! Hold your scarf over it just a moment till I come back.”

And even in that example, where we have one character, a cowboy, who fails to pronounce the d in and, even our cultured, educated lady, so smart and well heeled she actually speaks in semicolons still says “can’t,” it’s,” and “till.”

Because that’s how people talk.

And the same is true, though granted with a smidge less freedom (unless, of course, you make the creative decision to exercise that freedom) in description. If you’re writing in first person, everything should read as though it’s the character speaking, but even in third person, the POV character should temper the description with his or her manner of speech—at least a little.

Here’s a good practice to get into: Don’t just read your dialog out loud—and you should already be doing that—read it all out loud. Do you sound like a person or a machine? And even if you’re going for “machine,” like Commander Data, why not contractions?

Contractions aren’t gimmicks or signs of low breeding. They’re as much a part of the English language as adverbs, nouns, and (unfortunately) semicolons.

Don’t write without ’em.

 

 

—Philip

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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