The Contraction Wars: Winning Is Not or Isn’t Everything?

By Jack Limpert

An anecdote (from Connecting, a blog for current and former Associated Press journalists) about using or not using contractions when you write:

Bruce Lowitt once wrote a story that included the famous Vince Lombardi quote “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” The AP was on an anti-contraction campaign at the time and Bert, who was on the desk that day, changed the quote, eliminating the contractions. Lowitt went a little nuts but the mood was settled by Ed Schuyler, who piped up, “Calm down, Bruce. You can not win them all.’’

In my years as a magazine editor, I changed “is not” to “isn’t” many times. We didn’t have rules about contractions—we just wanted the words to flow faster. I often said we tried to take copy going 45 mph and make it go 70 by cutting needless words and sentences.

I asked Bill O’Sullivan, senior managing editor at the Washingtonian, for his thinking on contractions. In an email he said: “Ninety-nine times out of 100, contractions are better. I edit and copyedited accordingly and have almost never had a writer object. Contractions are how people think and speak. Lack of contractions sounds stilted to my ear, with occasional exceptions allowed for emphasis, tone, etc.”

Bill then sent a second email: “Contractions are also a very underrated way to lower the word count.”

My response (thinking like an editor with a budget): “You mean as in we’re paying the writer a dollar a word?”

His response: “No, as in trying to copyfit a piece.”
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I sent the graf about the Lombardi quote to David Maraniss, who wrote a very good book, When Pride Still Mattered, about Vince Lombardi. His response: “Love it! As my book details the phrase wasn’t Lombardi’s anyway and was first uttered publicly by a young actress in a John Wayne movie to a social worker played by Donna Reed after a screenwriter got to know UCLA coach Red Sanders who had said it earlier in his career at a small college in Tennessee.”

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