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Q. I am in the process of editing and updating a publication my department produces. Before reprinting, we must get approval from our funders, and they have requested we remove all the contractions because it is a formal publication with a safety message they want to see firmly reinforced. The original creator of the publication argues that we should keep the contractions because the intended audience is children, who have a wide variety of literacy abilities. He believes it will be off-putting to children if the style is too formal, and that a more conversational style is more likely to resonate with this particular audience. What do you suggest? Are there any guidelines on exceptions to the general rule of avoiding contractions in formal writing?
A. A complete avoidance of contractions is common only in the most formal writing (think wedding invitations, or speeches before the queen). Even scholarly books freely use contractions in sentences that would sound stuffy and pompous otherwise. Your funders have a point in that it’s traditional to get attention in safety matters by means of a firm “Do not,” but the writer’s approach merits serious consideration. If there is any room for compromise, the best solution might be a conversational tone that maintains uncontracted phrases in the most important messages.