You probably once learnt that you should use long forms like ‘do not’ when you are writing and ‘don’t’ when you’re speaking. But there’s a bit more to long and short forms in English than that.

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What are long forms and short forms again?

Long forms are forms like ‘Do not’ or ‘I am’ or ‘He has’.

Short forms usually make two words into one. They also use an apostrophe ( ‘ ) to say that you’ve missed something out. So, in this case you would use ‘Don’t’ or ‘I’m’ or ‘He’s’.

long and short forms in English
It’s possible to mix long and short forms in one text

It’s important that you know what a short form actually means if you use it.

  • he’s can mean he is or he has
  • we’d can mean we would or we had

Here’s how to decide whether you should use long or short forms in English. First, we’ll look at the long forms.

6 reasons to use long forms

There are some very good reasons to decide to use long forms. Use this list to decide if you should be using them.

  1. When you’re writing something very formal, like a scientific article
  2. Use them when you’re speaking in a very formal situation, such as an important speech
  3. If a style guideline tell you to use long forms, like with some books
  4. When the result of a mistake could be very great like with a contract
  5. This is key: when being careful is more important than making a connection
  6. When you’re stressing each word, to make sure that something is understood. So, for example, if you are angry. Do not tell me what to do.

Here are 3 examples of long forms:

Any provision of this Agreement that is prohibited or unenforceable in any jurisdiction shall, as to such jurisdiction, be ineffective to the extent of such prohibition or unenforceability without invalidating the remaining provisions hereof, and any such prohibition or unenforceability in any jurisdiction shall not invalidate or render unenforceable such provision in any other jurisdiction.”[legal clause, find lots more examples here]

“And of this I am absolutely sure: You, the public, have had enough.”[Theresa May]

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” [Bill Clinton, making sure the words were very, very clear and could not be misunderstood. Notice how he says ‘gonna’, short for ‘going to’ as well as using the long forms when needed for a specific purpose]

Now 7 reasons to use short forms

Just as with long forms, there are also some very good reasons to use short forms. Check out this list to decide what you should use. I expect you’ll notice that this can change depending on the situation. So, you need to work this out each time you are going to use English.

  1. In everyday conversation
  2. When you’re speaking in public in an informal situation, such as comedy
  3. Writing everyday emails
  4. When you’re quoting speech and want to show how someone said something
  5. When being quick is more important than being correct
  6. This is key: when connecting is more important than being formal
  7. If you want to avoid confusion – Don’t forget to feed the dog – is more neutral than – Do not forget to feed the dog. The second one could be neutral or angry.

Here’s 3 examples of short forms:

“Michelle and I, we’ve really been milking this goodbye thing, so it behooves me to be very brief.” [Barack Obama, ever the connector, read more speeches here ]

“It’s the first time three cities have shared the top spot in the 30-year history of the annual Economist Intelligence Unit survey.”[BBC.com, short forms are sometimes used]

‘Can’t stop the feeling, so just dance, dance, dance…”[Justin Timberlake, songs are usually short forms]

So, how should you use long and short forms when you’re speaking English?

Make sure you know what you’re trying to achieve. What’s the point of your email or document? Who are you talking to? After that, decide what the main message is. How do you want to say that?

Then check the lists and decide which style would work best for you (and if you can mix them up). Then you’ll have a good idea whether you want to use long or short forms in your English document, speech, email, etc.

What are your thoughts and questions about using long and short forms in English?

Tell me in the comments below.

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