Frequently Asked Question: Can I Use Contractions in Plain Language Writing?

Illustration of "you have" with V carrying in an apostrophe, saying "This'll make us SO conversational!" H and A look upset.

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of conversations about punctuation (or over-punctuation) in plain language writing. And some of you, our dear readers, have asked: If punctuation can be a sticking point for readers with limited literacy skills, does that mean I can’t use contractions in my plain language writing?

First, we totally agree about punctuation overkill. Health writers, beware: Gratuitous punctuation marks can make life harder for people with limited literacy skills. Plus, if your content needs that much punctuation, it’s a red flag that your sentences are too long or complicated (just think of what can happen when semicolons get involved!).

Ultimately though, we put contractions into a different category — specifically, the “write how you talk” one. You’ve probably already noticed how much we value striking the right tone in health writing, and we’d argue that writing conversationally is a really important part of that.

So our rule of thumb is to use a contraction if you’d say the contraction out loud. Don’t stress about the apostrophe!

But it’s not quite that simple. (What fun is a rule that you can’t ever break, right?!) There are exceptions. For us, the big one is when you need to be really clear about the difference between something that “is” and something that “is not.” Here’s an example:

  • Okay: Drinking alcohol while taking this medicine isn’t safe.
  • Better: Drinking alcohol while taking this medicine is not safe.

Someone quickly skimming the first message might walk away thinking it’s safe to drink while taking that new med, while the second message is crystal clear.

The bottom line: We ❤️ contractions because they make content conversational.

Tweet about it: To contract or not to contract in #PlainLanguage writing? @CommunicateHlth says keep contractions in health education materials when you’d say them out loud. Read more: #HealthLit


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