I am writing a children's story in first person, present tense. Aside from the quotes from characters, all of the text is meant to represent the narrator's own thoughts, and either describes what they see, do, or think, or their observations on other characters. I found that some areas seem more natural when I use contractions. Would it be appropriate for me to use contractions throughout the narration? Are there any authors who have done this successfully?
Is it acceptable practice to use contractions in a fictional first person narrative for children?
1I amended your title, because I think it makes an enormous difference. I can't conceive why anyone would worry about contractions otherwise.– Lauren-Clear-Monica-IpsumMar 27, 2013 at 10:13
5I'm curious: what made you think you shouldn't use contractions? The only writing styles which don't use contractions are extremely formal styles such as academic non-fiction. All fiction writing uses contractions extensively.– JSBձոգչMar 27, 2013 at 17:37
3@JSBձոգչ Children's stories -- as in, pre-school and earlier -- really don't use contractions; that part made sense. When you're learning the language from a very basic level, you need to learn what do not actually means before you figure out that you can also say don't.– Lauren-Clear-Monica-IpsumMar 27, 2013 at 19:26
May I suggest that you provide an example with and without contractions, so we all know what you are talking about?– John SmithersMar 27, 2013 at 21:39
2@LaurenIpsum, in spoken language children learn to say the contracted don't before they say do not. I was never aware of this convention with early reader books, but I suspect that it's in place more to avoid having to teach the apostrophe at that young age.– JSBձոգչMar 29, 2013 at 0:42
Contractions are fine in narration. As with other aspects of the narrator's diction and voice, the use or avoidance of contractions helps characterize the narrator, and indicates something about the formality/informality of the story.
If you are writing in first person, the language used needs to be roughly mainstream consistent with the age, location, etc. of the narrative character. If the two are hugely out-of-sync, it can cause a lot of discord while being read because the "person" that is speaking is saying things and using words that are out of character, thus unexpected and often jarring.
That said, when writing books for young children (pre-teen or early-teen), you have the additional challenge of the fact that the people buying the books (parents or schools most often) want the kids to pick up good language and grammar skills while reading, instead of reinforcing bad ones.
Contractions are not typical for a very young child but you could get away with them if your narrative character is a teen. A six year old using a contraction "isn't" wouldn't ring true to me and I wouldn't expect my six year old to know how to properly use it. It's not as bad as a ten year old using the word "transcendental" but it would still jar.
Here are two potentially useful links:
Note that the contraction worksheet is a 5th grade worksheet. That translates to roughly 10-11 years of age in the US. (My references are US references, I don't happen to have links handy for UK or other countries).
2"A six year old using a contraction "isn't" wouldn't ring true to me" -- can you unpack this? I've been thinking about this statement since you posted it, and my experience doesn't jibe with it. Mar 28, 2013 at 14:38
This page seems to suggest that books that teach contractions target children between the ages of 4-8, so it would depend on what age children you're targeting, it could be that the average 4 year old might not understand contractions however I would very surprised if an average 8 year old didn't understand them. Otherwise, they're proper grammar so if you expect your target audience to understand them, by all means use them.
I would add that, as someone has already mentioned, a first person narration should be written in a similar way to the narrator's natural way of speaking.
An additional consideration may be whether you want your children's story to be stocked in school libraries.
A colleague wrote a piece of Young Adult Fiction intended to encourage reluctant readers but found it was rejected by schools because of "the awful grammar"! It was not considered to be a redeeming feature that the main character's expression changed (improved?) as he incorporated what he had read into his own thoughts and speech as the story progressed.
1I can understand the school's position. Yes, it makes sense to say that text that is supposed to be the narration of an uneducated person would often include poor grammar. But from a school's point of view, they're trying to teach proper grammar, perhaps more than they're trying to teach engaging, creative prose. And that's not irrational: while there are many good reasons to break the rules, a student needs to learn the rules before he can learn when to break them. But in any case, contractions aren't "bad grammar", they're perfectly legitimate.– JayMar 27, 2013 at 13:40
1This is certainly interesting - fascinating, actually - but I don't think it addresses the question directly. Mar 28, 2013 at 1:18
2The relevance to the question "Is it acceptable practice to ..." lies in determining who is the arbiter of acceptability in your context. In the case of a children's book, that can often be librarians.– FortiterMar 28, 2013 at 7:32
This is an old post but thought I'd say this anyway in case someone's googling. I have worked as book designer for most of the top publishers (S&S, Harper, Penguin Random house etc) in NYC for over 20 years. Specifically children's books. Grammar, spelling etc is NOT my thing, I just make things pretty. However, I had to work on a few templates over the years for other designers to follow and I can say, at least in the houses i have worked for, contractions are not in picture books. They start appearing in older chapter books but still those are pretty much frowned upon. Stick to solid middle grade and above.