Using contractions could be making your writing inaccessible

Content designers decide what, how and where to write things based on evidence and research with users.

Many modern content style guides promote the use of contractions. A contraction is a shortened form of a group of words, such as ‘there’s’, ‘I’m’, ‘you’ve’. They’re usually encouraged as a way to make the tone more informal and friendly — the way that people naturally speak.

But, I’ve learnt that using some contractions can lead to:

  • decreased understanding
  • misinterpretation of meaning
  • an increase in the mental effort required to read them

Writing for all

I’ve previously worked as a content designer in government, mainly on digital services for people with disabilities and health conditions. So, the majority of research we did was with people with disabilities or health conditions, or with people who supported them.

Making content accessible and easy to understand is essential to what we do as content designers — using plain English and consistent language, keeping sentences short and to-the-point, explaining complex concepts in simple terms and so on. The content I wrote for the digital services followed the government style guide, including using contractions to make the tone more conversational. It seemed like a logical place to start.

Sacrificing understanding for style?

One of our research sessions was with people with learning disabilities. There are approximately 1.4 million people with a learning disability in the UK (source: Mencap).

We found that some of these users did not understand sentences that had negative contractions in them (negative contractions are words like ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘don’t’). They interpreted the sentence without inferring the ‘not’.

Further research supported this finding, such as Change People’s ‘How to make information accessible’:

“Use ‘do not’, ‘can not’, ‘would not’ and so on instead of ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’ and ‘wouldn’t’ because some people rely on reading the ‘not’ to understand what is being said.”

And the Department of Health’s publication, ‘Making written information easier to understand for people with learning disabilities’:

“Do not use contractions and avoid apostrophes, except where they indicate possession.”

It’s a problem for other users too

I shared this insight with other teams in government.

People working in different digital services had seen similar issues. They’d noticed that people who have English as a second language (approx 4.2million at 2011 Census), and people with other reading difficulties, can also be slowed down by contractions.

Using negative contractions can decrease understanding

Although some people may understand and use contractions in their everyday speech, they can take time to recognise them in writing.

And recognising and understanding the word ‘not’ is, usually, crucial within an interaction — the difference between right and wrong, between lawful and unlawful, between safe and unsafe.

By contracting ‘not’ we could be making the meaning of our content not only ambiguous to some people, but potentially dangerous.

Design for users

Content design is not about satisfying our own personal preferences and habits. It’s not about the brand personality that a company wants to portray. Content design is about focusing on the needs of those who will use the service.

We should write for our users, not for ourselves.