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.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about punctuation (or over-punctuation) in plain language writing. Some of you have asked: If punctuation is 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 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 semi-colons 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 value we place on 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 when the contraction is what you’d say out loud — and don’t stress about adding that 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 “being” and “not being.” 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 reading the first message might think it’s saying drinking is safe, while the second message makes it crystal clear.

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