Because you study contractions early on in your English learning journey, you often learn them as “optional” ways to combine pronouns and helping verbs, or helping verbs and negatives.
But they’re not really optional – they’re basically required if you want to sound natural when speaking English.
That’s why you have to understand how and why we use contractions in normal speech.
Let’s discuss how to say contractions naturally in American English by pronouncing them with correct sentence stress and using appropriate reductions.
Why We Use Contractions in Natural Speech
First things first, what do we mean by contractions?
Contractions are when we shorten, or contract, two or more words into one smaller form.
When we form contractions, we drop sounds in order to move through these words more quickly.
Because these words just aren’t as important as the other words in the sentence, we de-emphasize them by turning them into contractions.
In other words, we make them less obvious.
Some common contractions you may be familiar with include “I’m,” “you’re,” “she’s,” “he’d,” “they’ll,” “we’ve,” “haven’t,” “isn’t,” “doesn’t,” “shouldn’t,” and many others.
The most common contractions combine a pronoun with an auxiliary verb (a helping verb or a modal verb, or they combine an auxiliary verb with a negative.
(You can also combine a noun, name, or question word with a helping verb in order to form contractions, but we’re going to focus on the basic types of contractions today.)
These common contractions are either affirmative or negative, and it’s very important that you understand the distinction in order to pronounce them correctly.
My Theory Why Non-Native Speakers Struggle with Contractions
As I mentioned a moment ago, these contractions are basically required if you want to sound more like a native speaker.
But for some reason even fluent non-native speakers don’t always use them regularly.
I have a theory that this has to do with the way that they’re taught in beginning English classes.
You get used to separating them into two words when reading sentences out loud.
This bad habit persists even after years living in an English speaking country.
Whatever the reason, when you don’t use these contractions in everyday speech, it can actually make your accent more obvious, because you’re drawing attention to words that don’t really matter.
Standard Contractions Are More Important Than Informal Contractions
Before we discuss how to say these contractions naturally, I want to clarify that we are not talking about informal contractions like “gonna,” “wanna,” and “dunno.”
Informal contractions ARE optional and they need to be said with correct sentence stress in order to sound natural.
You can watch my video on how to pronounce informal contractions like a native English speaker to understand exactly what I mean.
We’ll take a moment to compare standard contractions with informal contractions at the end of this video, so stay tuned.
How to Pronounce Affirmative Contractions
Now, let’s talk about how to pronounce contractions like a native speaker.
As I mentioned, contractions allow us to de-emphasize words that aren’t really as important so that we can stress content words that convey the meaning of the sentence.
In other words, contractions are reductions, which means the sounds should be less obvious.
To complicate things, we usually stress affirmative contractions differently than negative contractions.
Let’s break this down.
Affirmative contractions like “I’m,” “you’re,” “she’s,” “he’d,” “we’ve,” “they’ll” are reduced.
Affirmative contractions are quicker, quieter, lower in pitch, and the vowel changes to a less distinct sound.
Here are some examples:
- We don’t pronounce “I’m” as /aɪm/, it sounds more like /ɪM/.
- We don’t say “she’s” as /ʃiːz/, we say /ʃiz/.
- We don’t say “he’ll” as /hiːl/, we say /hɪl/.
- We don’t say “we’re” as /wiːr/, we say /wɪr/.
- We don’t say “they’d” as /ðeɪd/, we say /ðəd/.
- We don’t say “you’re” as /jʊr/, we say /jər/.
In a complete sentence, this sounds more natural, which is why I always encourage you NOT to practice contractions in isolation: practice them in complete sentences.
Practice Reducing Affirmative Contractions
Let’s look at some examples. Pay attention to which syllables should be stressed in each sentence.
I’m so excited for the weekend.
As you can hear in the video, the contraction “I’m” disappears in order to emphasize the key words of the sentence: I’m SO exCIted for the WEEKend.
She’s my favorite actress.
As you can hear, I’m de-emphasizing the contraction “she’s” in order to emphasize the key words, “favorite” and “actress.: She’s my FAVorite ACTress.
He’ll be late to work.
As you can hear, “he’ll” is less distinct: He’ll BE LATE to WORK.
We’re waiting for the results.
As you can hear, the contraction is reduced, while we’re stressing the key words of the sentence: We’re WAITing for the reSULTS.
They’d like to go to the movies.
Once again, we’re reducing the contraction in order to emphasize the words that truly matter: They’d LIKE to GO to the MOvies.
You’re doing a great job.
As you can hear, the contraction is less distinct because we’re emphasizing the key words of the sentence: You’re DOing a GREAT JOB.
When we use affirmative contractions, we’re stressing or emphasizing the words that truly matter, and taking attention away from the contractions based on how we use our voice.
Try writing your own sentences with affirmative contractions and identify which words should be stressed.
How to Pronounce Negative Contractions
Now let’s talk about negative contractions.
Negative contractions include “aren’t,” “isn’t,” “doesn’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “won’t.”
Even though negative contractions are reductions, we usually stress them for clarity.
Think about it: people are expecting to hear the affirmative or positive form, so we emphasize the negative in order to make the meaning extra clear.
After all, we usually stress negatives, so contractions are no exception.
Practice Stressing Negative Contractions
Let’s look at some more examples.
She isn’t coming to the party.
As you can hear in the video, I’m stressing the negative contraction: She ISn’t COMing to the PARty.
My brother doesn’t like his job.
Once again, I’m stressing the contraction along with other key words in the sentence: My BROther DOESn’t LIKE his JOB.
We won’t have enough time for dinner.
Once again, I’m stressing the contraction in order to make the meaning extra clear: We WON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME for DINner.
It wasn’t the right color.
As you can hear, I’m stressing the negative contraction along with other key words in the sentence: It WASn’t the RIGHT COlor.
They couldn’t find what they were looking for.
As you can hear, I’m stressing the negative in order to make my meaning extra clear: They COULDn’t FIND what they were LOOKing for.
I haven’t had time to finish the project yet.
As you can hear, I’m stressing the word “haven’t” in order to make it extra clear that I haven’t had time to finish the project yet: I HAVEn’t HAD TIME to FINish the PROject YET.
Can you hear the difference in how we stress negative contractions versus reducing affirmative contractions?
We stress negatives in order to make it easy for the other person to follow what we’re saying.
Now, try writing your own examples with negative contractions, and practice stressing the negative contraction along with the other content words of the sentence.
Feel Confident Using Contractions Consistently and Correctly
Using contractions correctly will help you create the natural rhythm of English, make your meaning extra clear, and, of course, sound more like a native English speaker.
Most importantly, you want to make sure you are using contractions consistently.
Just to review, we reduce affirmative contractions and stress negative contractions.
Contractions are normal and expected in spoken English. They’re NOT “lazy speech.”
When you don’t use them, it focuses attention on the less important words in your sentence.
For example, take the sentence, “You’re doing a great job.”
If you say “You are doing a great job,” without using the contraction, you end up bringing extra attention to words that your listener is not expecting to hear emphasized.
It can be a little bit confusing to hear, and it can make your speech sound choppy or a robotic.
On top of that, if you stress the word “you” or “are,” it can completely change the meaning of the sentence.
For example, if you say “YOU are doing a great job,” that means that you’re the person doing the great job, as opposed to someone else.
If you say “You ARE doing a great job,” it sounds like you’re trying to reassure someone who doubts themself.
When you say it normally, as in “You’re doing a great job,” you bring attention to the compliment, which is your point.
As you can see, we only separate contractions or stress affirmative contractions when we are speaking emphatically, dramatically, or carefully, but not in normal, natural speech.
As you continue to work on your stress and intonation, you want to pay attention to these details, because they’ll help you speak more clearly and be more easily understood.
Comparing Standard Contractions with Informal Contractions
Last but not least, let’s talk about informal contractions.
I’ve noticed a tendency for non native speakers to overuse informal contractions, while NOT using standard contractions!
If you pronounce words that are normally contracted as two separate words, and then still include an informal contraction, it can sound a little strange or forced.
For example, consider this sentence: I do not want to go.
You shouldn’t say, “I do not wanna go.” It doesn’t sound natural. It sounds like you’re forcing the word “wanna” into that sentence.
When you DON’T use the standard contraction, you’re emphasizing words that should be reduced.
Here’s how it should sound: I DON’T WANna GO.
I would probably emphasize “don’t” more in order to indicate my disinterest in going.
Here’s another example: They are not going to join us.
When you say “They are not gonna join us,” it sounds a little off.
You can say “They’re not gonna join us,” or “They aren’t gonna join us.”
Once again, you want to stress that negative.
Remember, we use contractions and reductions like informal contractions in order to draw attention away from the words that don’t matter, and emphasize the words that truly do.
If you want to sound more like a native English speaker, you need to consistently use standard contractions and stress the key words of your sentence.
When you’ve got that right, informal contractions will sound more natural, not forced.
For more guidance on sentence stress and informal contractions, be sure to check out these videos:
Be sure to practice affirmative and negative contractions by creating your own examples.
This will help you get more comfortable reducing affirmative contractions and stressing negative contractions along with content words.
Remember, it takes time to retrain your mouth to say contractions naturally, so be patient and practice consistently.