Communicate Like a Human: Lesson 7.
Google didn’t. Siri couldn’t. Alexa won’t.
They sound like a proper unhelpful bunch, don’t they? But this isn’t a lesson on positive communication.
We’re looking at the common contraction. As the video clip shows, all the virtual assistants use informal contractions of two full words; three when the contraction is negated by ‘not’.
These common contractions – including ‘it’s’, ‘I’m’, ‘don’t’, ‘he’s’ – account for 10% of the words used in our sample conversations.
That's deserving of spending some time looking at these small words. We will consider why we use contractions, the impact they have when they are there and when they are not. And why some people see them as just too common for business.
We will also do a quick reminder of how contractions are formed. Something we rarely think about as they are so, well, common.
Contractions are just slang
The Grammar Genius considers contractions as slang, localised for each language. As slang is predominately intuitive, when we hear it being used correctly, it plays a huge part in the humanising of the virtual assistants.
Intuition originates in sense and feeling. These are human characteristics. You can’t programme a machine with human characteristics.
Siri is the only one who doesn’t seem completely comfortable using contractions. She will introduce herself by saying “I am Siri”. She will restructure a sentence to avoid using a contraction at all.
It’s one reason you never forget Siri is merely a computer.
Contractions are the humanity of language
As humans, we use contractions with no thought. But writing them into the speech patterns of the VAs is likely to have been a priority.
Without contractions, all other techniques used to humanise their language would be rendered obsolete.
Imagine you’re doing a child-pleasing impression of a robot. Because you are a loving parent. And a show-off. I guarantee the first sentence you would say as your hilarious robot self would be “I. Am. A. Robot.”
Not sure what I mean? Try saying “I’m a robot” instead. Do it now. Out loud.
It sounds nothing like a robot, does it?
And that is exactly the point.
What a difference a contraction makes
In the introduction to these lessons, I described the language techniques employed by the VAs as including “things so inherent in native speakers that they only notice them by their absence”. Contractions illustrate this idea most clearly.
I’m sure many of you can’t imagine you’d notice any difference if Google’s using a contraction, but Siri isn’t.
I am sure many of you cannot imagine you would notice any difference if Google is using a contraction but Siri is not.
I imagine most of you noticed the difference there.
It’s not just that the first sentence flows better and sounds more natural. You can explain that as recognition rather than sentence structure.
Contractions are so common that when they aren’t used, the rhythm of the sentence changes. Our brains don’t expect to see the full version of the ‘am’ or the ‘not'. They stand out and so we give them more emphasis when we read them.
It adds importance to what may have been just a passing comment. It assumes a definite intent that was not, well, intended.
The rules to making contractions
Most languages, when spoken, include contractions that native speakers use without thought. Here is a reminder of how they are formed in English.
First, take a subject. This can be a pronoun, such as ‘I’, ‘it’, or ‘they’. It can be a proper noun, like ‘Brian’, ‘Prime Minister’, or ‘COVID-19’. Or it can be a common noun like ‘the table’, ‘my head’, or ‘your family’. You just need a subject against which your contraction can stand.
Next, choose an auxiliary verb. This is a verb that precedes another verb (sometimes implied) and gives context and specificity to tense and mood.
The main, or primary, auxiliaries, are the families of ‘to be’, ‘to have’ and ‘to do’.
The secondary, modal auxiliaries, that give further direction and weight to the main verb, include shall, will, can, must and their respective derivatives.
Smash your subject and auxiliary together so hard that the vowel in the middle of the two pops out. Some of the adjacent consonants may also disappear.
To make a conjunction stand out from its close grammar siblings, the abbreviation or the portmanteau, remember the removed letters by putting an apostrophe in their place. This acts as an ‘in memoriam’; like the posthumous dedication on the last frame of a movie, carrying the name of some Key Grip who died on set.
And there you have a consciously created contraction.
The exceptions to the rules
As you should expect from English grammar, there are more exceptions to these rules than adherents. We can only hypothesise around the rationale, but notable exceptions include:
We don’t contract verbs that end with t, n, or y.
Logically, a contraction needs to sound like a word when run on from the hard pronunciation of the subject (eg, ‘he’ as in ‘helium’, not ‘heather’). It shouldn’t just be a grunt of letters. It also helps if it doesn’t sound like another commonly used word.
The negative changes everything…
After the contraction of ‘to be’ – I’m, she’s, they’re, etc – the most common contraction we use is when the verb is negated. Here, we leave the verb and instead contract the ‘not’. This gives us couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t, etc.
…but not in the same way.
Apart from when we don’t, of course. We would never say I amn’t. We would say I’m not.
You will find many detailed lists of contractions - like this one - online.
You won’t find many rationales to explain the differences.
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Are contractions just too common?
As contractions are so common in speech, you may assume the same would be seen in writing. In fact, perhaps it is their conversational commonality that leads to them being rejected even more than adverbs and adjectives.
Run any spellcheck or editing tool and you will be advised to ‘correct’ all contractions. Ask the internet and you will find strong, opposing views.
Some style guides will tell you “they can be an irritant…a distraction…and…frivolous”. While others take the view that contractions make your writing “sound natural…relaxed and make reading more enjoyable.”
Neither view considers the change in tone and meaning. The rarity of the full versions makes them feel clumsy around the mouth and if you only use these, it is a sure way to drain the humanity out of your writing.
You will also add emphasis to the verb or negation you are spelling out. “I am” implies you are doing something others are not. “They will not” chastises ‘them’ for not doing. If your writing is for a lecture, or your intention is to be dictatorial, this is useful.
If you have only separated the words because of editorial advice, be aware that your audience will still read this intonation, whether intended or not.
Contractions are usually formed by the removal of the vowel in a mash-up of a subject noun and an auxiliary verb.
The apostrophe is the ‘in memoriam’, taking the place of the vowel you have murdered.
When negated, the vowel is removed from the ‘not’, not the verb.
Before extending contractions in your writing, read the sentence out loud. If it doesn’t sound natural or if it adds an unintended emphasis, revert to the contracted form. Probably.
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