12: Common contractions in American English

don't, can't, won't, hasn't, didn't, weren't: Learn how to say and why to use common contractions


Hello everyone, and welcome to Seattle Learning Academy's twelfth American English Pronunciation podcast. I have to make an apology. I was going to teach about informal contractions during this podcast, but I have changed my mind. I've decided that I would do common, or regular contractions today, and save informal contractions for next week. So I am going to save gonna and wanna for next week, and stay with the basic contractions like don't and she's today.

I'm doing this for two reasons. One, I can lay the foundation for contractions now, using words people are more familiar with, and two, it is much more important to be able to use the regular contractions before the lesser acknowledged ones.

First, our review. Since we just finished a series of four podcasts about vowels, I'd like to do a quick review of all 15 vowel sounds and their key words. If you are listening from a private place, please repeat the sound and the key word after me. Speak as accurately as possible.

long a (long a) cake
long e (long e) keep
long i (long i) bike
long o (long o) home
long u (lung u) cute
short a (short a) cat
short e (short e) bed
short i (short i) sit
short o (short o) top
short u (short u) sun
oo sound (oo sound) soon
u as in put (u sound) put
aw sound (aw sound) dog
oi sound (oi sound) join
ow sound (ow sound) down

Good. If you want specific reviews of certain sounds, go back to the previous four episodes.

All right, contractions.

A contraction is a word like don't and can't, which is a combination of two, or sometimes more words. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the use of contractions in English as well as other languages. I'll put a link up along with the transcripts this week on pronuncian.com.

Although I think most ESL classes teach contractions, few teachers emphasize the importance of using them in everyday speech. Contractions help us keep the rhythm of spoken English. English is a stress-timed language, meaning we keep about the same amount of time between stressed syllables of spoken English. This leads to things like reducing vowels, and in turn, creating things like contractions, along with other spoken English features.

Languages that are not stress-timed are usually a type of syllable-timed. It is generally considered that each syllable takes about the same amount of time in syllable-timed languages.

For some quick examples, which I am taking from Wikipedia's article on stress-timed and syllable-timed languages, the following languages are considered stress-timed: English, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian, and Czech. In contrast, Finnish, Slovene, French, and Spanish are commonly cited as syllable-timed languages. I'll also put the link to that article with this week's show notes for those of you that would like to learn more.

In English, the intuitive desire of a native speaker to have stressed syllables occur on beats makes it likely for us to reduce or omit some sounds, especially vowel sounds of function words. Function words are the words that serve a grammatical purpose. A content word, or a word that gives the most information about our topic, is usually stressed. I could talk about this for a long time, and I will in a future podcast. Right now I hope you will just trust me that learning to say contractions is a good thing to do. In fact, when a native speaker does not use a contraction where one is possible, it is usually going to slightly change the meaning of the sentence. For instance, in the sentence I didn't wash the car, using the contraction didn't, the important fact in the sentence is that the car wasn't washed. If I said I did not wash the car, splitting the word didn't into the words did and not, I am actually now emphasizing the word not. I would do this for a number of different reasons, like perhaps to offer a correction to the fact that you thought I did wash the car.

Let's listen to the common contractions with the word not, focusing on their pronunciation.

don't, can't, won't, hasn't, didn't, weren't

The word don't is the combination of the words do and not, and is pronounced with a long o sound. The whole word is only one syllable long. Listen to me again, and repeat after me if you can.


The word can't is the combination of the words can and not. It is said with a short a sound, and is also only one syllable long.


The word won't is strange because it sounds so little like the words it combines. Won't is the combination of will and not. It is also one syllable long, and said with a long o sound.


The word weren't is the combination of the words were and not. Weren't is only one syllable long. I often hear this accidentally pronounced as were-n't by my students. Try to say it as one syllable.


The word hasn't is the combination of the words has and not. It is a two-syllable word and pronounced with a short a sound.


The word didn't is the combination of the words did and not, and is two syllables long. It is pronounced with a short i sound.


The other set of words that are often made into contractions are auxiliary verbs including forms of the verb to be. These are words like: he's, she's, it's, I'd, you'd he'd, we'd, you're, they're, I've, you've, they've and others.

Let's look first at the combinations with the word is: he's, she's, and it's. These are all one-syllable words. Saying them as 2-syllable words is like not making the contraction at all. Listen again, and repeat after me if you can.

he's, she's, it's

Let's listen to the contractions with the word are: you're and they're.

The words your, spelled your, and you're, spelled you're, sound exactly the same. They are both one syllable, and sound like your. The word they're, t-h-e-y-'-r-e sounds exactly the same as the words t-h-e-i-r and t-h-e-r-e. Yes, they all sound exactly the same. Listen to the word again: they're.

The word have is commonly made into a contraction, like in the words you've, they've, and I've. These are all one-syllable words. Listen again. You've, they've, I've.

The last set of contractions I'm going to talk about at the combinations with the word would. When making a contraction with the word would, the only part of the word that remains in the d sound. Most pronouns can be combined with the word would. Listen to just a few:

I'd, you'd, they'd, we'd, she'd, he'd

All of those words are only one syllable long. Listen to them again, and repeat them if you can.

I'd, you'd, they'd, we'd, she'd, he'd

We can combine these auxiliary verbs with other words besides pronouns, and I would also encourage you to do so. We can combine them with any noun. For instance, the dog is, becomes the dog's. This sounds identical to the possessive form. So the word dog's is spelled and pronounced the same whether the phrase or sentence is:

The dog's barking, as in the dog is barking
The dog's bone, as in the bone that belongs to the dog.

You will notice these contractions much more in spoken English than in written English. The more formal the writing is, the less contractions will be used. In informal emails, lots of contractions are used. In a business document, few contractions are used. I try to use contractions in a more conversational manner during these podcasts so you can get used to hearing and understanding them. You have the option of reading the transcripts, which makes it easier to understand if my use of contractions ever confuses you.

The transcripts to this podcast are available online at www.pronuncian.com. I will also add the Wikipedia links that give some more information about the concepts I've talked about today.

As a little activity, I would encourage you to watch some video on TV or online and try to notice when contractions are used and when they aren't. Most subtitles on DVDs will have common contractions written the way they are said. Subtitles often do not write all of what the actor said, though, so you still have to listen closely.

Next week I will teach about informal contractions. Informal contractions are so informal that you will seldom see them written, except in some very informal emails. But they are spoken more than most Americans ever even realize, and you need to be able to comprehend them in conversations with native speakers.

Until then, have a great week everyone. If you have any comments for the show or if you have anything you would like to make sure I talk about, please email me at podcast@pronuncian.com.

Thanks for listening to the Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Bye-bye everyone.

Stress-timed and syllable timed languages from: Timing (linguistics). (2008, June 1). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:07, June 1, 2008