Long ago, when I was small boy, we were forbidden to use contractions in formal writing. We had to write, “Where is the nearest gas station?” But the possessive apostrophe, “Jim’s car,” was allowed.
When I taught English overseas, I could tell which of my students had been to American-funded language schools and which had been to British-funded schools. The former used contractions, whereas the latter rarely did. But they learned quickly. If foreign students can grasp the correct use of the apostrophe in one or two lessons, I keep asking myself, how come so many English speaking people have so much trouble with it?
I put it down to just plain laziness. The rule is very simple. Plurals do not have apostrophes. Cats are cats and dogs are dogs. The possessive apostrophe is used when somebody owns something. Mary’s cat. John’s dog.
Anybody who can’t remember these two simple rules is just not trying. Use an apostrophe to make a contraction and use the possessive apostrophe correctly. Or look foolish.
Regular contractions are a bit difficult because there are so many of them. Students learning English have to learn them as they hear them. There are at least fifty commonly used contractions ranging from I’m to shouldn’t. A surprisingly large number of contractions are negatives because the not is turned into –n’t. Examples are isn’t, doesn’t, mustn’t, and the strangely spelled won’t, which takes the place of the archaic willn’t.
Just to complicate matters, some of the contractions could have two meanings. For example she’d can mean either she had or she would. (She’d had a rough day so she’d go straight to bed when she got home.) What’s can mean what is, what has, or what does. (What’s he doing? What’s he done? What’s that mean?) Students have to pay attention to contractions.
There is one contraction that is very simple: they’re. Because it sounds similar it is often confused with the adverb there (They live over there.) and the possessive their. (That is their house) Just three simple words, there, their, they’re, yet many people can’t tell them apart. I call that just plain laziness.
One of the most popular contractions, and one that is used worldwide, is the fascinating and much maligned ain’t, which has many uses including am not or is not, as in I ain’t going and he ain’t going, either. This contraction is at least four centuries old, yet, strangely enough, ain’t just ain’t acceptable in standard spoken English.