Rant about Contractions

February 3, 2012

Posted by Kanga.

beach, green bush, and the Arabian gulf

This picture was taken in Ras Al Khaimah. It isn’t related to what follows, but I liked it and just thought I’d post it for your viewing pleasure.

I work with students who are learning the English language as a second language. 100% of the students, not just a small percentage. I have no training in teaching English as a first or second language. As a librarian, teaching the language is not my task, but in attempting to get the students to read English materials, I cannot escape some of the challenges of learning the language.

I’ve always known that English is a difficult language full of exceptions to the rules. I before E, except after C, and a lot of other exceptions like weird, forfeit, vein, etc.

This week it was contractions – can not into can’t, are not into aren’t, etc. Being someone who probably thinks too much, I began to ponder why do we do this in this manner and who decided that the laziness of speech should be noted in written form. Why not just write “cant” and “wont” and “arent” and “wouldnt”, etc. I suppose because some of these would be confused with other words, like cant and wont, although context ought to indicate which meaning is appropriate. And, why not spell woodnt and shoodnt? Why bother with “ould” which is not very phonetic.

It is no wonder that Globish is becoming so prevalent. Arabic, for example, lacks definite and indefinite articles. It seems perfectly natural to say “Miss, I want pen” instead of “Miss, I need a pen.” Actually, it is often just “Miss, pen” or “pen.” There is also “Miss, I want paper.” Which really means “I need a piece of paper” not “I need a ream of paper.”

[Correction – there is a definite article in Arabic – Al. I should know better than to write about things I don’t really know about.]



  1. The reason for the apostrophe is that a letter is removed. Isn’t, can’t, won’t, the “o” is removed. They’re, we’re, etc, the “a” is removed. But then, I wouldn’t expect a librarian to know all of the rules of writing conversational English. As you said, that isn’t your job. 🙂

    • I know that the apostrophe stands in for the letter that has been removed, but the question is why bother. Why not just skip that and spell it like it sounds? I’m a product of phonics education, as you might guess. Only modern western languages have bothered with punctuation and symbols. Ancient Greeks and Romans strung capital letters together without even putting in spaces or breaks and still managed to communicate. Arabic doesn’t have capital letters. Semitic languages, like Hebrew, didn’t bother with vowels, even. In college, I wrote a note to a friend in English without vowels to prove that he could figure out what it said and, if it weren’t for the confusion between “happy” and “hippy,” it would have worked.

  2. Although I enjoy English Language Learners, I am hyper-aware of difficulties with the language. Having worked with almost all language groups, the article problem is followed immediately by the plural -s problem — many languages simply state number (I need nine pencil) with no suffix for plural. And don’t even get started with singular verbs needs -s while plural nouns need -s. Having whined about all that, I believe the kindest correction, and eventually effective, is to repeat the sentence correctly. Beginning students obviously benefit from hearing and speaking (and seeing) so if you want to be grammar Nazi, feel free, but just stating it correctly and letting them answer yes/no will help them. By the way, I took 2 linguistics classes to understand why we have ‘knight’ for ‘nite’, so for the cliff notes version, all living (natively spoken) languages changes some, but English grammar is descriptive as opposed to more consistent languages which are prescriptive (no English student will every believe we aren’t prescriptive!)

    Working with a new phonetic program to teach reading, I noted the most recent accepted change — no -wh- sound. I personally never distinguished between wear and where, but now we aren’t even trying to teach that sound. So for all who loved the “Windy, the Whale” lessons to learn -WH-, you are out of luck.

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