An example from my writing:

Not even a god like Kiyoshi deserved an angel like Kobayashi. True, I had never talked to her. But I'd watched her. She would smile even to those who treated her badly. Would sacrifice her reputation to make someone look good. Would forget forget about morality, at least for a second, to focus on a person's vulnerability.

I could have written: "True, I'd never talked to her. But I had watched her."

Which arrangement makes prose flow/sound better?

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    Try speaking various iterations of the sentence out loud. The more you stumble over saying the sentence, the more in need of revision it might be.
    – GordonM
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 8:56

3 Answers 3


Of the two choices, I like the second better.

Mainly because it emphasizes the word had--even when it isn't bolded. Read it out loud both ways, even with a flat affect and you'll hear what I mean.

When we use contractions, we sort of gloss over the word.

What you choose will depend on what you want out of it.

The repetition of the word, using the shortened first and then the lengthed naturally draws attention to the word had the second time. The other way around, since there isn't a cue to draw attention to it beforehand, it's not emphasized one way or another.

Using I'd in both cases also doesn't emphasize it either.

You can check for this phenomenon by asking someone to read the sentence and asking them if they emphasize any word in their head simply because of the way it's written. I would bet the majority of folks would find the emphasis on had, simply because of the cadence and order of the writing.

The main reason it draws attention is this: the initial "I'd" shows that the person speaking uses contractions, but then they actually CHOSE to use the long form of the word in the second case, which means that they think that word is IMPORTANT, and they did not before.

EDIT: AS the commenter points out below, the first version puts the emphasis on "watched" I feel it's more subtle than the emphasis of "had" in the second version because attention is not called to it in the same way. If you have someone read version one and ask them, "reading this, which word, if any is emphasized?" you might get varying answers. As for flow--that's going to be largely based on opinion for this sentence. I would base the decision on what subtext you'd like the sentence to have.

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    You're right that the second phrasing emphasizes "had" watched her, but is that evidence that it's the better thing to write? The first phrasing makes the first sentence airier, and by making the second sentence shorter it emphasizes "watched" instead: the speaker is in enough of a hurry to get to that word that the "I had" is contracted into "I'd". Either could be better depending on the author's intent. I would expect, say, an admirer jealous of Kobayashi's lover to spit "I'd watched her", whereas someone with a plan to get Kobayashi's attention himself would brag "I had watched her".
    – amalloy
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 21:14
  • @amalloy It depends on what you want to do with it. I like the second better, but since I have no idea what the author wants to accomplish subtextually--I don't have evidence that it's the better thing to write--all I can do is talk about what the effect is. I did kinda get creep factor from the first, but...I thought that was just me. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 22:20

The 'd contraction defaults to expansion into would. It takes a second guess basing on trailing content to expand it to had instead. As result you're creating mild garden-path sentences, which, when unintended, is a type of stylistic error.

Use this contraction only for would where it naturally falls into speech ("I'd like...", "I'd rather...") - and when creating flavor speech, a character that abuses contractions, sometimes hard to understand, hurried, or just crude. Otherwise, if you have no good reason not to, just use the full form, had.

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    Context is everything in this case. I read it as had, because of context. You would not say "I would never talked to her." That's not grammatically correct, so it does not default to that. I don't have to guess. I KNOW that grammatically the 'd has to stand for had, not would or should, which is can stand in for. This is not ambiguous meaning wise in any way, and is commonly used. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 14:56
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    If it was written "I'd have never talked to her." I would know that it was would or should, more likely would, but I'd not mistake it for had. Just now I wrote "I'd not mistake it..." in grammatical context, it's "would" because if it were had it would read "I'd not mistook it." Also when you begin a sentence with one particular grammatical construct (as I did with I would) I'd not use a different one when I switched to a contraction later in the sentence. While you can do this, it's awkward, when using 'd is part of the context you might use to establish it. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 15:13
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    I gave examples but just so you have the parts of speech: would is followed by the bare infinitive (infinitive without to) OR would can also be followed by the perfect infinitive (have + past participle) had is followed by a past participle. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 15:21
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    @SF.: Have you any evidence to back up your assertion that 'd defaults to would? As a native speaker I have absolutely no difficulty parsing sentences with I'd where it means had, especially where (as in these examples) the verb appears very soon after it - in contrast to the Garden Path examples, which do make me stop and think.
    – psmears
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 16:22
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    The author's second go-around is not an example of a garden path sentence because I knew which was which within two words. I did not have to re-read or parse. Did read the wiki entry, and it was interesting, but just doesn't apply here, at least for a native speaker. If the audience is also made up of folks who have English as a second language, even if they are skilled, it might be an issue (and it's not a bad idea to write to that audience as well, since there are many people who do have it as a second language). Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 18:41

I voted for Erin's response, as it echoes my gut feeling regarding the inferred intent of the speaker. Since I can't add comments yet due to rep, I did want to go ahead and add some additional thoughts here regarding the question itself.

In general terms, I'd suggest that the author should consider whether such an emphasis/distinction is actually meaningful to your speaker. That is, ask yourself whether you are trying to convey some additional clues or subtle signals to convey additional meaning to their statements. Why would the speaker deliberately use the contraction in one instance, while using the full form in the another?

If your speaker is fairly passive about the acknowledgment that they had never talked with her, then "I had never talked..." is perfectly fine as-is. However, this doesn't really seem to fit, given the other provided context: "Not even [...] Kiyoshi deserved an angel like Kobayashi." That seems to imply at least some degree of interest / desire / longing.

Together, with the context, using "True, I'd never talked..." (when contrasted with later usage of "But I had watched her."), would come across as an almost confession-like, throw-away acknowledgment (does the speaker actually regret this, or is it merely a statement of fact?). Then, the speaker would contrast that admission with emphasis on what they did do - they watched / observed her. This emphasis can be conveyed by the deliberately inconsistent use of the contraction in one situation, versus fully expanding the other.

Perhaps, among other things, the speaker is attempting to justify their familiarity with Kobayashi, despite having never actually spoken (or interacted) with her? It could at least be possible that the speaker has a natural tendency to minimize (here represented by use of contraction) things they don't like, while emphasizing (via use of the expanded form) what they do.

Anyway, if those ideas matter to the concept you're attempting to convey via the speaker, then I'd absolutely lean towards the "True, I'd never talked [...]. But I had watched [...]" form.

While this may not strictly relate to the actual flow, I think it can add some nuance and convey subtle clues which reinforce the speaker's underlying motivations.

Side note, related to another answer: I'd + past participle* = "I had", in all situations. It is incorrect to assert that "I'd" only expands to "I would". When paired with that past participle ("talked", "watched"), "I'd" should easily be parsed as "I had". Unfortunately, this is just one of those crazy, context-based English rules.

* -- Garden path only occurs if "I'd" is followed by a single [written] word which can serve as the bare infinitive, as well as the past participle (such as "read" [as in, "I am going to read that book today"; pronounced as reed] versus "read" [as in, "I read that book yesterday"; pronounced as red]).

Example: "I'd read that book." ("I would read that book [in the future].", versus "I had read that book [in the past].") For this, additional context would be needed to narrow down the actual usage of "read" in this case.

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