This question is very specific to academic writing:

I used the contraction "don't" instead of "do not" in some of the papers. Some of the reviewers mentioned that "don't" is not a formal style of writing. I wonder the reasons - I see pretty much every writer use it. What makes "don't" so informal over "do not"?

  • 1
    "...in some of the papers." Can you provide more detail about what you're writing? Thesis? Journal articles? Also, I updated your title, as talking about individual words is close to off-topic here, but the tone of contractions in general is quite solidly on-topic. Please revert the edit if I'm off-base. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Sep 3 '12 at 2:45
  • I'm not sure if I would call them "antithetical" in that context. "Out of place," perhaps? – Robusto Sep 4 '12 at 17:44
  • 1
    @Robusto - Used in the sense of "mutually incompatible", or being in opposition to the needs of a thing. The question is asking, primarily, whether contractions would be contrary to the needs of academic writing. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Sep 25 '12 at 13:42
  • @NeilFein: I don't see contractions as being either of those things with respect to academic writing. What that style of writing needs would be accuracy and clarity. If a contraction promotes clarity, what's the harm? – Robusto Sep 25 '12 at 13:56
  • 1
    @Robusto - Because enjoyable, clear writing is not always the best option. If you have expertise in academic writing, and can expand on your comment, you can always answer the question. But the concern here is that there's an expected formality in some academic disciplines that might find an overly familiar style of writing to be inappropriate for the subject matter. I've heard of academic papers being criticized for being informal, because the style seemingly doesn't take the subject matter seriously. (I think criticizing the style and before the content is ridiculous, but there you are.) – Goodbye Stack Exchange Sep 25 '12 at 17:55

Contractions are, by their very nature, informal, as they tend to be more frequently used for speech than writing. However, you don't necessarily always have to avoid them: although the APA Style Guide recommends avoiding them for academic writing, other style guides, e.g. Chicago Manual of Style, recommend using them, for when "used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable". The best advice would be to use them when not using them would sound strange or unnatural. As always, however, stick to what is recommended to you in your setting.

  • 1
    +1: And I encourage the OP to pay special attention the last sentence, checking what style guide is in force for the school in question. Usually this will be either MLA or APA, depending on the subject being studied. – Robusto Sep 5 '12 at 11:45
  • 1
    How do I know which style guide to refer to? No style guide was ever recommended to me - I just write! I do not study at a privileged place and I mostly gauge these things by reading other academic articles. However, you can not always reverse engineer everything and some level of pedagogy is always beneficial. Specifically, I am writing articles for a Computer Science research conference/journal. Since the reviewers have pointed out that contractions should not be used would it make sense to assume that the APA Style guide is preferred over the MLA? – Dexter Sep 5 '12 at 14:04
  • 1
    That would be a reasonable assumption, @mcenley. Have you ever asked the reviewers and/or the publication's editors etc. whether or not there is a style guide they prefer? Just because they have not recommended it to you, doesn't mean there isn't one. – Craig Sefton Sep 5 '12 at 14:15
  • @CraigSefton The reviewers are anonymous and there is no conversation I can have with them. It is a bit chaotic situation in CS academic conferences. I do not know whom to actually ask - people only cite specific do and do not's without explaining the "whys" or even a try. – Dexter Sep 5 '12 at 14:26
  • 1
    You might be able to find the specific journal's style guide, either on the journal's website or by asking the journal's editor what style guide they follow. – Kelly Tessena Keck Sep 25 '12 at 13:06

Your reviewers are correct that "don't" is informal. Whether it's appropriate to academic writing or not is a harder question to answer. Google Scholar turns up 2 million hits for "doesn't" and 2,800,000 for "can't," so clearly it's used in some academic contexts. (The results for "don't" weren't helpful, since Google flagged not just "don't" but the name "Don T.")

Whether it's appropriate for your specific journal or conference depends on their overall style. I would pay attention to the other papers presented there to see how formal they are, as well as trying to find out what specific style guide the journal uses (maybe by asking their editor or checking the journal's website--frequently guidelines for writers are listed somewhere on a journal's page).

Another thing that might help identify whether it's a common convention is how many reviewers pointed it out. If one reviewer noted it, and three others didn't, it may well be one person's preference. But if multiple reviewers found it problematic, that suggests that it will seem out of place to the journal's audience as well.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.