Yes. I am one of those writing teachers who counts off for contractions. I know what you are probably thinking: that idea is old-fashioned, passé, even obsolete. Many professors no longer prohibit them. Even the Modern Language Association, which dictates innumerable rules about writing style, permits contractions in their publications, noting, “…there is nothing inherently incorrect about contractions, which often keep prose from being stilted and make it more approachable and easier to read.” Also, as seen in my title, I actually use them myself.
So why do I ban them in student writing? I have two main reasons.
First, one principle I follow in my classes is to train my students to the highest standard of writing that they may encounter. It is true that many professors have given up the prohibition of contractions, especially younger professors. Even so, there are many who continue to forbid them, among them Dr. James Bednar, as noted in his “Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing.” Dr. Bednar is not even an English professor, but a computer programming professor, yet he prohibits contractions. As one can never know which sort of professors he will encounter in his academic career, it is prudent to plan for the worst case scenario. A student who has learned to write without contractions will have an easier time than one who suddenly has to remember to avoid them.
Just this last year, however, I stumbled upon a second reason to ban them: the EGREGIOUS contraction. No one really minds everyday, normal contractions, such as don’t, won’t, can’t, and aren’t. If those were the only kind that found their way into academic writing, there would likely be no prohibition, even from college professors.
Alas, there is an inherent tendency in some students to contract every possible group of words, with horrid results. They’re, should’ve, could’ve, and ought to’ve are a few of the troublesome ones I have found in formal papers written by newer students. Some are even worse. How about this doozy: shouldn’t’ve? No kidding; I have actually seen that one, and others just as ugly, in student papers. Until students learn to write without contractions, it is hard for them to discern that such constructions are wrong.
The good news is that once students become aware of contraction use, they begin to develop a sense of how and when they might be used to best advantage. Banning contractions is part of an effective strategy for developing that awareness.
For great information about how to distinguish a legal contraction from an illegal one, enjoy this MLA Style Center article!