A contraction is a word that is formed by combining two or more words which often occur together in speech. In the process of this combining, one or more segments (i.e. vowels and/or consonants) of the component words are phonetically altered, reduced, or omitted entirely.
Some English contractions are well established and are included in dictionaries, such as do not → don't, I am → I'm, it is → it's, we would → we'd. Here is a list of some of the most common contractions which have a recognized form; at the following links, about the same list is classified into positive, negative and other contractions. These established contractions are used in the same form in most dialects of English, including General American (GA) and Standard British English (RP). Although some style books advise you to avoid contractions in writing, this is not necessary unless you are writing in an extremely formal style.
Informal contractions (not in most dictionaries)
Beyond the recognized contractions that are acceptable in writing, there are a number of informal contractions, such as going to → gonna, want to → wanna, should have → shoulda, have to → hafta, kind of → kinda, sort of → sorta. You will hear these in very casual speech, and see them used at times in comics and jokes, but they are not found in most dictionaries, and should not be used in most kinds of writing. Here is a fun list of some very casual informal contractions, here is another. (Keep in mind that some of these pages are not intended for specialists in linguistics, and they are not written in a linguistically rigorous way.) Here is a page that discusses contractions, from an excellent e-book on language; here is another discussion of informal contractions.
Informal contractions differ from dialect to dialect; the ones on this page and listed in the pages linked to from here are typical of North American English. Other dialects, such as Standard British English, may have their own distinctive sets of informal contractions. Here are some RP examples of informal contractions exhibiting voicing assimilation, with sound files. Use of informal contractions also varies from individual to individual and according to the situation. If English is not your native language, you should learn these forms as an aid to listening comprehension, but you should avoid using them yourself, unless you are very close to native level in your English speaking ability. Don't try to run before you can walk!
Make sure you only use contractions you have heard a large number of native speakers use. Making up your own contractions will not only make your speech sound sloppier, but you may not be understood at all, and your listener may form a lower opinion of your English ability because of it! Although contractions are due to a kind of 'sloppiness' of speech which in fact saves effort in places where complete clarity is not required they are highly rule-governed and they follow established convention.
Contracted forms can change over time, for example, it is used to be contracted as 'tis, but today we say it's; 'tis is used only in literature or jokingly. It was used to be contracted as 'twas, but in modern English there is no contracted form for it was; you must use the full form.
Here is a page with lots of excellent information on English contractions, both current and historical:
The relationship between contractions and their corresponding full forms
You may have been told that contracted forms mean the same thing as their corresponding full forms, e.g. that don't means the same as do not. The basic, literal meaning of the two expressions is of course the same, but think about what differences there may be between the two forms pragmatically. Think of how you feel when someone says Don't go. and then how you would feel if they said Do not go; or how about I don't want to do it. as opposed to I do not want to do it. What different effects do the two forms have on you as a listener? Of course, the tone of voice used with each form will make a big difference in the interpretation of the message as a whole. For example, a non-contracted form with a neutral tone of voice may sound simply childish or slow-witted, but one combined with a stern tone of voice may sound angry, controlling, or threatening. In any case, however, the contracted form and its corresponding full form are used in different situations to convey different metamessages (i.e. what is implied by the message rather than stated outright; 弦外之音), and you as both a listener and speaker need to become sensitive to this.
Note that in most cases, the contracted form is the unmarked form. That means that it is the most appropriate form for most situations, and does not usually carry an additional message with it such as impatience, anger, or limited IQ. So in contrast to the advice just given regarding the informal contractions, you should make a real effort to use the dictionary-recognized contracted forms in your own speech as much as possible to avoid misinterpretation by others of what you say.
Contractions in Mandarin and Southern Min
Contracted forms appear in many languages, including Mandarin and Southern Min. Think of how in casual conversation you pronounce expressions like: 我馬上來 wo3 ma3shang4 lai2 'I'll be there right away'; or 腳踏車 jiao3ta4che1 'bicycle' in Mandarin; and 不要 跟人講 mai2 ka7 lang5 (kang5) kong2 in Southern Min. Can you think of other examples?
Contractions in French, German and Spanish
Have you learned some contractions in your second foreign language(s)? Here is a very brief and clear outline of the rules for contraction in French, with lots of examples. Some common French examples are: ce est = c'est 'this is', ne ont = n'ont 'they don't have'. Examples from German: zu der = zur 'to the'; ist es = ist's 'is it'; so etwas = sowas 'something like that'. Here is a video on German contractions. Spanish has only two formal contractions: a el = al 'to the'; de el = del 'of the'.
Which words tend to become contracted
Note how it is usually function words, which carry a low information load, that have the strongest tendency to be contracted. In Mandarin, it is often the second element of a three-syllable phrase or intonation unit that is elided (省略, 縮讀). All kinds of contraction affect the information density and rhythm of a language by compressing more information into fewer syllables. Use of contractions thus shortens the length of the utterance as a whole while increasing its relative semantic weight.
The more common kind of phonetic assimilation in English is anticipatory assimilation, in which a sound(s) is (are) affected by a sound or sounds which come(s) after it. An example of this is the nasalization of vowels that occur before nasal consonants, as in jam, man and sing. In contraction, however, we have encountered perseverative assimilation, in which a sound is influenced by a sound which occurs before it, for example, the voiced final consonant in is becomes devoiced when followed by the voiceless stop in it's. Perseverative assimilation also operates in the rules for forming regular plurals, possessives and third person singular verb forms in English. Do you remember what these rules are? The following page offers a quick review.
Next: Phonological rules for English plurals and more
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