Re: Am I Wrong to Avoid Contractions?

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Dear Alien Whisperer…

Indeed, I do: Do what feels right to you for this character, in this project. I expect it will be noticeable—but isn’t that the goal with your aliens? Zero-contraction dialogue will make them sound like non-native speakers. Avoiding contractions is also a great device when a character code-switches to formal conversation with adults or authority figures: “I wouldn’t do that” to their pals, but “I would not do that” to their bosses. Here’s where I have a problem with the no-contraction thing: in dialogue that’s not intended to sound non-native or to be calibrated for authority figures. Dialogue like “I would not do that” and “I wish I had been there” in everyday conversation sounds stilted, and stilted dialogue absolutely “slows the flow.” When I see that happening in a manuscript I’m editing, I call it out. In most cases, we want readers to focus on the content of what’s being said, not how it’s being said. Alrighty then! With that answer in the can, this Trekkie is stepping away from her work desk to watch “Hero Worship,” a favorite episode of Star Trek: Next Generation that stars the android character Data, who never uses contractions—except when he accidentally does. Oopsie-daisy….

Happy writing!
The Editor

5 Comments

  1. That is exactly what I have done for space aliens and historical fiction characters set in non-English speaking countries based on my gut feeling (and being bilingual and having a linguistics background). But I’m really just commenting to say that I LOVE that you’re a Trekkie! 😉

    • We are a Trekkie family! Multiple conventions, many cast autographs and posters, model Star Trek vessels all over the house, countless action figures and Star Trek books, many Halloween costumes… I could go on. Check out my Facebook page — I just posted two fun photos with you in mind, Teresa. Qapla’!

  2. Couldn’t agree more with your take on contractions. Not using them when applicable can be a real tripping point when reading, as are typos, and backwards quotation marks. You wouldn’t think these little things would make a difference in an otherwise well-written book, but they can make all the difference. Of course, there is always a exception, if it’s aliens or such.

  3. When speaking a language with which one is not familiar, contractions do not usually occur. So to demonstrate alienness–presuming this individual is not completely familiar with English–I’d say don’t do contractions. Recall your first couple of years of foreign language.

    I had three years of French in high school before I learned my first contraction, which was from a guy who’d been there in the war.

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