61. Why don’t you use more contractions?

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Why don’t you use more contractions in the EHV? People use almost all contractions when they speak.

We get an equal number of comments which say that we use too many contractions in the EHV as those which say that we do not use enough, so there is no solution here that will satisfy everyone. I wrote this FAQ because we had recently received a message strongly suggesting that we use more contractions, especially in the epistles. While I was reviewing and editing this FAQ, I received a review of the EHV expressing great happiness that the EHV did not use as many contractions as some other translations and hoping that we would not use more.

Early in the translation process for the EHV, we received more complaints about using contractions in the EHV. The thought was that contractions lack the dignity that the Bible deserves. The more recent complaint that we should use more contractions is based on the feeling that non-contractions make the Bible sound stuffy, because contractions are how we speak.

Bryan Garner is the grammarian we refer to the most. In his article in Modern English Usage about contractions, he says among other things: “Perhaps contractions do not belong in solemn contexts. … Don’t start using contractions at every opportunity. … It depends on whether the contraction helps or hinders the rhythm with which you want the sentence read. … You have to go by feel not rule.” His last rule, “go by feel not rule,” is one we try to follow.

This is not an issue concerning whether contractions or non-contractions are more or less spiritual, but an issue of the degree of formality of the communication. The Bible’s texts have various levels of formality. Some of the Bible reports informal secular conversation. Some of the Bible is formal writing that uses elevated language.

This is a complicated issue with a lot of nuances. The contraction/non-contraction issue is too complex a situation to address with a simple all-or-nothing rule in either direction.

  • One the few universally accepted rules is: Do not use contractions in legal writing. A handbook for legal writers says: “The use of contractions is inappropriate in formal legal writing.” Much of the Bible is legal writing.
  • There are cases in which contractions cannot simply be substituted for non-contractions. In American English I won’t go is not completely interchangeable with I will not go. There is a difference in tone and emphasis.
  • Contractions that are common in speech (I’d’ve gone if I were you) do not look good in writing. The contracted I would have gone is pronounced idov, but we can’t write it that way.
  • In speech, we often pronounce could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve in a way that sounds identical to “could of,” “should of,” and “would of.” Listening to such contractions being read aloud could be confusing to listeners of our metric Bible who do not have American English as their first language. Non-contractions are always grammatically correct, and they most clearly convey the meaning.
  • There are a few contractions, such as gonna (going to) and wanna (want to) that are written without apostrophes that are probably too informal even for informal biblical speech. On the other hand, there are times you must use a contraction no matter how formal the speech. You have to say two o’clock. You can’t say or write the uncontracted two of the clock.
  • Some writers use less-common contractions when they want to represent a particular style of speech. They might write somethin’ to represent the way people often don’t pronounce the final g of “something” in speech. Occasionally, you might see e’er (instead of ever) in poetry to fit the meter. And, of course, you will probably write y’all (you all) only if you are attempting a regional Bible for the American South. Even there y’all (yawl) and you all are not interchangeable. This issue does not have much relevance to translating the Bible since we do not know enough about their speech patterns or dialects to attempt such distinctions.
  • That brings us to the final issue. We are not trying to make Judeans sound like 21st century Americans. We are trying to make them sound like ancient Judeans who spoke good English. Did they contract words in their daily speech? Probably, because that is a very normal and natural process of speech. More to the point is whether the scribes who recorded that speech wanted to record it with contractions. Did they want us to read it with contractions? Probably not, if the intense efforts of the Masoretes to insist on exact pronunciation reflect the intent of the text. Both Jews and Christians are typically more formal in their church and synagogue reading than in daily conversation.
  • There are quite a few areas in which biblical speakers are more formal than American English speakers, such as in the use of deferential titles. In the EHV, we are not necessarily trying to say it “the way we would say it,” but “the way they would have said it” if they spoke English. We, of course, have only limited ability to do this.

There are many issues in which translators face this problem of formality vs informality, knowing there is no solution that is acceptable to all their readers. If Jesus says, “Who are you looking for?”, which is the way Americans talk, people will write, “Our Lord Jesus Christ would not use bad grammar.” If he says, “For whom are you looking?”, people will say, “Our Lord was not a stuffed shirt.”

In our revisions of the EHV, we may be using a few more don’ts and fewer do nots; fewer will nots and more won’ts. Use of contractions is perhaps more desirable in cases like do you not know than in cases like you do not know. Word order and rhythm play into the decision. But I don’t know and I do not know are not interchangeable in tone.

This problem comes into focus in Paul’s epistles. All epistles are letters. Not all letters are epistles. An epistle is a literary work in the form of a letter, but aimed at a broad audience, while a letter is generally intended for a specific individual or small group (actually there are a lot of different kinds of letters). The epistles are lessons for public reading aloud. They also have very friendly introductions and conclusions. The degree of informality in the greetings may not be appropriate in some of the body of the letter.

Letters are not necessarily informal. Many of the letters in the Old Testament are actually decrees. A friendly casual tone is seldom appropriate.

“You have to go by feel not rule.” This is the advice we try to follow.