Briefly Speaking: The Long and Short of Contractions

The Grammar PatrolWe (Edith Hope Fine and Judith Josephson) are the Grammar Patrol. Both of us taught for years and are now writers, with thirty plus books between us, including our two popular grammar guides, Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar. For close to twenty years, we taught writing and grammar basics and now we blog about grammar for writers.


Briefly Speaking: The Long and Short of Contractions

Recently posted on FaceBook:


Take that, grammar police!

And in Stolen Prey, a Lucas Davenport book by John Sandford, the horrible bad guys leave a message written, you guessed it, in blood:


Its (or It’s?!) enough the drive the Grammar Patrol batty!

A contraction does what it says it does—it contracts, or shortens, a word. The apostrophe steps in as a placeholder, letting readers know that a letter (or letters) is (are!) missing.

“I have” becomes “I’ve.” “Does not” becomes “doesn’t.” “Will not becomes won’t.” “You have” becomes “you’ve.”

Let’s look at some other common—but pesky—contractions, and their counterparts that don’t require apostrophes.



The “Theiyr’re” joke above combines three forms of the homonym they’re, there, and their—all easily addressed.

• they’re

We say they’re often in casual speech. “They are” simply becomes “they’re” in speech and in informal writing, with the apostrophe holding the fort for the space and the a of “are.”

 Tip: With apologies to Gertrude Stein, there is no “the’re” or “ther’e” there.

• there

The word there, which you’ll see hidden in “Theiyr’re,” sounds the same as the other forms, but is not a contraction.

There as an adverb tells where—“The canoe is over there” or “Let’s go there.”

There as a pronoun introduces a clause or sentence: “There is confusion . . .”


• their

The other word lurking within “theiyr’re” is their, an adjective—the plural possessive for “they.”

What belongs to (is possessed by) the three bears?

Their house, their chairs, their porridge, their beds.



Author John Sandford made the deliberate choice to have the villains (and they are really villainous) spell we’re wrong in WERE COMING to indicate something about them. Are they druggies? Uneducated? From another country? All will be revealed.


• were

The word were is the past tense of are: “Their ducks were all in a row.”


The word we’re is the contraction of “we are”: “We’re explicating apostrophe/contraction confusion.”



Did you catch the contraction “let’s” above? Both let’s and lets are forms of the verb “to let.”

• let’s

The word let’s lets [ah-ha, two in a row!] you contract “let us” to the less formal “let’s” for common speech and informal writing: “Let’s have pizza.”


The word lets is the third person singular form of “to let.”

As you know, these verbs end with an s in the present:

He runs.          She paints.      It pours.           Mrs. Chase lets students make decisions.





The contraction it’s is short for “it is”: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”



The word its indicates possession. “The dog wagged its tail.”

Tip: Possessive its never splits. (Note the its hiding in splits.)


A last bit of advice from the delightful Grammar Girl, author of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing: “Unless you’re going for a breezy style, avoid unusual contractions such as ‘I’d’ve’ ” (for “I would have”).

We’re sure you’ve now got a grip on these tricky words. They’re not as hard as they’re cracked up to be.

For more on grammatical conundrums, check our zany Nitty-Gritty Grammar and More Nitty-Gritty Grammar guides (Random House). And send us bloopers you hear or see. We love hearing from you.

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