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Who gets to decide which words can be contractions?

We use contractions such as "can't" or "shouldn't" all the time in our writing. There are a few though that we use in speech but probably wouldn't write down.

For example, if you read that last paragraph out loud, do you actually say "there are" or do you squish the words together as a contraction -- "there're"?

Here's another question: Would you ever use "there're" in writing? Probably not, but many of us wouldn't have a problem using contractions like "can't" and "won't.  

So why do some contractions get a pass but not others?

This question came up in 2012 after USA Today ran this headline: "Notre Dame, what're you going to do about it?" 

After the story ran, USA Today acknowledged that the headline had raised some questions over whether "what're" is actually a word. The publication said that after some research, they found out that it's not.  

English Professor Anne Curzan wanted to know exactly what USA Today meant by that. She assumed they meant that they couldn't find "what're" in standard dictionaries. It turns out that's true. Curzan checked the American Heritage, Merriam Webster and Collins dictionaries and didn't find "what're" in any of them. 

However, "won't," "shouldn't," and "haven't" do show up in standard dictionaries. So does "ain't," even though people always seems to be arguing about whether it's actually a word.

But dictionaries don't always agree. "Would've" and "could've" aren't in the American Heritage or Merriam Webster dictionaries, but they are in Collins. "There've" is listed in the Collins and American Heritage dictionaries but not Merriam Webster.

"There're" isn't listed in any of the standard dictionaries. But "there'll," another contraction that many of us say but wouldn't write, shows up in the Merriam Webster and Collins dictionaries but not American Heritage. "It'll" shows up in all three.

So who gets to decide whether something is actually a word? 

"The answer is editors are trying to responsibly put in common contractions, but they won't always be in agreement, and they won't always be entirely consistent in the dictionary," says Curzan.

What other contractions do you use in speech but not in writing? Let us know below.


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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