Crazy English Writing Rules: Contractions!

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English Writing Rules - what do you know that
you don't know that you know?

The more I teach English to non-native speakers the more I come across English writing rules and patterns that are intricate and fiddly and seem almost impossible to follow naturally, and yet native speakers follow them constantly without even being aware they exist.

Or, in another words, you don’t know what you know.

So what do you not know you know now? And why is it important in writing?

“Slang-y” Contractions

There are contractions that are very common but aren’t “proper.”  Like “gonna” for “going to” or “wanna” for “want to.”  If I’m talking with friends, you better believe “So do you wanna go to the movies?” will be what I use and not a perfectly enunciated “So do you want to go…?” (of course, here in October 2020, that isn’t a question I’m actually using, but you get the drift). 

And yet, even when you’re using slang contractions, there are rules you unconsciously follow. In this case, you can’t always contract “want to” into “wanna,” and if you’re a native speaker you probably know when without even thinking about it.

The Proof

Read the sentence “What do you want to see?” quickly aloud, and you probably said “What do you wanna see?”  But read “Who do you want to feed your dog?” at the same speed and you’ll hear the “t.”

Why? Why does “wanna” sound natural in the first example but so wrong in the second?

It turns out there’s an actual, real answer.

The English Writing Rule You’re Using

English writing rules about contractions

When you’re asking a question where the answer to it would split up “want to” by coming between “want” and “to,” we don’t contract it. Yes, that sounds overly complicated and like we couldn’t possibly do it without conscious thought, but it’s exactly what’s happening.

Example:  “Where do you wanna go?”  “I wanna go to Ireland.”

The answer to the question, “Ireland,” doesn’t come between the words “want” and “to” in the reply, so it’s cool.

Example 2: “Who do you want to walk the dog?”   “I want Bob to walk the dog.”

The answer to the question, “Bob,” comes between “want” and “to” in the reply, so the questioner doesn’t contract it.

I find this amazing, because I think pretty much every native English speaker knows to do this, but I can’t imagine even 1 in a million knows why.

(Note: As always, I am speaking purely from an American English perspective.  If these rules are different in other forms of English around the world, please let me know – I’m curious! 😊)

Why Does This Matter in Writing?

These kind of slang-y contractions, while not a part of formal written English, are definitely a part of spoken English. As such, some authors include them in written dialogue to give it a more “spoken” feel. I definitely do this.

If you’re one of those who does, it’s important to make sure you’re using them correctly – which entails using the above rule (or your own internal “ear” to hear when the rule applies or doesn’t). Otherwise, it could take your reader out of the story instead of increasing their immersion.

Do you have any other “crazy English writing rule” you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments below. Happy Writing!

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