Ignored Contractions

25 Mar 2008

No, not THAT kind of contractions…

One thing I’ve noticed about students of English in China is a tendency to ignore contractions. Chinese college students tend to be weak on spoken skills in general, and one of the symptoms is this failure to use contractions. We native speakers like to use contractions in informal speech, and as a student of English, failing to follow suit makes you stick out. When I taught English in Hangzhou, I used to focus on the use of contractions to get my students speaking more natural English.

Typically, the symptom goes something like this. Given this sentence:

> I’m a college student.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> I am a college student.

Given this sentence:

> He’s a very smart* boy.

A typical Chinese college student will read this:

> He is a very smart boy.

Obviously, these are not heinous mistakes, but it does make me wonder why for something so simple, the students don’t just read what’s written there.

Common sense tells me it’s just a habit. The teacher once told them, “I’m” means “I am” and “he’s” means “he is,” and it was just easier to convert it over, in pronunciation as well as in meaning. And the teacher didn’t care.

Still, a part of me wants to link it to characters somehow (you can’t contract 我是 or 他是**), or some “deeper” reason. I have to mentally smack that part of me… contractions are something of an ordeal for any learner of English; being Chinese has nothing to do with it.

If you’re teaching English, though, one easy way to help your students sound more native is to remind them to use contractions in their speech, or at the very least to get in the habit of pronouncing them correctly when reading them.

* Have any of the textbooks started to use the word “smart” instead of “clever?” They never did in my day, even when they claimed to be teaching “American English.”

** Although maybe some northern Chinese dialects kind of sound like they attempt this…


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. sparky98 Says: March 26, 2008 at 5:36 am

    John : isn’t 您 a contraction formed from 你 and 们 and therefore can’t a plural form such as 您们 ?

  2. maxiewawa Says: March 26, 2008 at 7:11 am

    Hear hear! Students do it often, and teachers shouldn’t let them get away with it (reading “I’m” as “I am”).

  3. I’ve always wondered about that ‘clever’ thing. Is it just a matter of British English, or does 聪明 imply something closer to ‘clever’ than ‘smart’?
    In context it does seem to be used a lot with the ability to solve problems, rather than pure intelligence, but yeah, it doesn’t have that ‘sneaky’ element that the word ‘clever’ can carry.

  4. I’ve found that linking sounds in general are neglected. In English we usually say something like, d’you haveany? not: do / you / have / any? or: I’m justa student. Not: I / am / just / a / student. In spoken English, a word ending in a consonant flows right into a word beginning with a vowel, but I don’t think most people are taught that.

  5. My father once noted that when my wife reads out English texts, she remarkably sounds like the old Apple Text-To-Speech software (not German though, but that might be the result of 16 years in Germany).

    I agree and am deeply convinced that this relates to the thinking in characters. Characters are the atomic unit of Mandarin thought. My nephew memorizes English words as if they were separate Hanzi with the individual letters representing the “strokes”. You cannot grasp Mandarin without Hanzi. I am even convinced that they shaped the current spoken Chinese.

  6. Yes, I’m with you all the way about using contractions. I tell my students that only robots say things like “Yes, I am a student.”

    I do hear some in Chinese quite a bit, though. One that comes to mind is replacing “什麼?” with “啥”

  7. I’ve noticed and worked hard on correcting this tendency in my own students, and always figured it was something to do with being taught that “I’m = I am” and so on. I also notice occasionally a student who will read the text “I am” as “I’m” as well as reading “I’m” as “I am.” I teach all ages, so with my young children’s classes I’ve been very careful to teach them “same meaning, different pronunciation.” Maybe it’ll stick with ’em.

  8. Mark,

    Chinese does seem to have its equivalents of contractions, including not only 啥, but also 咋, 甭, etc. It looks like contractions are officially limited to languages with “letters” though. From wikipedia:

    Based on the latest definitions, contraction is shortening of a word, syllable, or word group by omission of internal letters.

    Interestingly, the entry includes Japanese examples. I guess they considered kana close enough to “letters.”

  9. sparky98,

    Although it’s true there is officially no word “您们”, I don’t really know much about the origin of 您. I’ve never heard that it’s a contraction.

  10. Talking with a friend about a movie, he said ‘Wo jiexia kan le’. At least that’s what I heard, when I didn’t understand he repeated himself slowly: ‘Wo jintian xiawu kan le.’ They might not be written, but Chinese does have contractions (and who is wikipedia to say it doesn’t have them).
    Or consider 漿 for 這樣, internetspeak apparently, haven’t seen it myself but saw it reported.

  11. But the contracted words in Chinese turn into full-blown, healthy “characters” as well. They follow the same design. That is not the same as “I am” –> “I’m”

  12. 您 is not a contraction at all. It’s spoken just to show your respect to someone and I don’t think 啥, 咋, 甭 are contrations. They are simply individual characters.

  13. I remember when I was a child in elementary school learning contractions. I was afraid to put the punctuation in the wrong area. therefore, I put it above the letters instead of between the letters. Needless to say, I was harshly corrected by the Nuns in school.

    For the spoken language, I believe that one needs to practice the word usage and then it comes more natural. I have this same problem when I speak Tagalog (the language of the Philippines).

    Good Luck with school.

    Greg Pasden
    Author of “Living & Moving to the Philippines – The Ultimate Guide to Paradise”
    Click here!

  14. The examples of contraction in Chinese may be we/woman -> wom, you/nimen -> nim, they/tamen -> tam, which only appear in some casual speech.

    Nin is honorific and singular. There is no honorific in English and English speakers often confuse it with the honorifics in French and other European languages in which plural 2. person is used. The officially, grammatically, correct plural form of nin is nínjiwei, though most Chinese don’t know it.

  15. Sorry, when I said “honorific”, I actually meant V-form.

  16. hmmm… inclined to think clever is a better translation. Smart may be more colloquial, but it has a wider range of meanings (“He smarted at the insult.”). Assuming the less ambiguous translation isn’t uncommon, isn’t it smart for teachers to prefer it by default?

  17. I heard one of my co-teachers (in Taiwan) teaching what sounded like “This is Caitlin is fish.” instead of “This is Caitlin’s fish.” I assumed she had trouble pronouncing the consonant clusters or something, but maybe she actually thought it was a contraction.

  18. I think the thing you MIGHT get in chinese is cutting phrases down to one or two characters that wouldn’t make sense on their own, but since you know the characters missing, you understand. See how many people you can impress when you ask how to get to the new 央视 building.

  19. Ron Frost Says: March 27, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Here’s an exception for you: “wanna”. Chinese people use it all the time, even in formal writing.

  20. trevelyan,

    For me, it was never an issue of translation… The fact is, in American English, “smart” (meaning “intelligent”) is a much more common word than “clever.” So when I heard my students constantly using the word “clever” and never the word “smart,” I have to say that if it’s supposed to be American English, it’s not natural.

    Obviously, I do not speak for Canadian English…

  21. I think it has to do with exposure and pretty much zippo to some built-in/acquired tendency.

    If one imagines a typical Chinese student learning English, how much “practice” do they get with contractions? Even if they got the same amount as say a typical student in a North American classroom, they would have scant reinforcement thru conversations. Kids in an English first language environment will get concurrent exposure to contractions and the extended version which allows them to sort this out.

    It’s like picking up a bad habit, it takes a huge amount of over-learning and practice to get rid of the habit. And the habit that Chinese kids learn in class FROM their local-trained teachers is to say it all out.

    BTW, this was a/is a huge pet peeve of mine when I learned Japanese, where textbooks hardly EVER gave one glimpses into colloquial patterns/sounds, and before ChinesePod it was almost as tough to find for Chinese.

    If one listens to kids that pick up words from online games, or watching Friend’s clips, they have no trouble with the contracted sounds.

    They speak English in Canada? They call pro-wrestling hockey. If I ever used the word “clever” in the U.S., I better say cle’va, or someone’s gonna bonk my head for trying to be all uppity with a Brit accent. Wazzz’up?

  22. I tried commenting here when John first put up this post but for some reason it never appeared, anyway as I said in my unposted email since John is teaching American english there is no problem teaching ‘Im’ instead of ‘I am’ or Gonna instead of ‘going to’ but in Europe in the past alot of these contractions were looked down upon as “not proper English” and I would feel that alot of the first English language learning books to first arrive in China were from England and so this is the kind of English the Chinese english teachers would have learned. I know I use a lot less contractions than say an average American.(and I dont sound like a Robot.)

  23. I learned “I’m” to be the one and only proper form for “I am” when I got English in 5th grade. In fact, “I am” would have been marked as a mistake in a test.
    “Gonna”, however, I picked up only on the streets (and later: movies). So I always considered some contractions to be proper and others to be slang.

    good to hear that you are still around! Hope you are also coming back to us in the CPod conversations!

  24. As for the “clever” issue, I am going to agree with John, and elaborate a bit. 聪明 when translated to American English definitely means “smart” or “intelligent.” “Clever” in American English does imply more so intelligence with a slice of creativity, or possibly even sneakiness. That being said, I have noticed the British use “clever” more often than us in the US. So it is possibly that the translation into British English is different from that into American English…being American, I do cringe a bit when I hear the word “clever” as a translation for 聪明.

    As for the contraction debate, in addition to students not using them, I have found that even when they do use them, they pronounce them correctly. I vividly recall a time when I was explaining to students many of the common grammar mistakes Americans make, “your” and “you’re” being a blatant example. When I explained to them that the reason we confuse these is that their de facto pronunciation is the same, they didn’t believe me. They had been taught to pronounce “you’re” as “you” but with an “er” at the end, rather than pronouncing it as “your.” The same holds true for “we’re” which most Americans pronounce the same as “were.”

    While Chinese doesn’t have contractions per se, they do tend to cram common words together so they come out more or less as one…An example is 我们是 . The 我 is said so fast that it nearly becomes part of the 们syllable. It’s not denoted by the writing as is done in English, but I think some of the same principles of contraction are taking place.

  25. The same thing happens with Korean students, the thing is Korean has a number of contractions used in spoken as well as internet speech so I’m not sure why they can’t/won’t use contractions in English – I certainly do my best to use them correctly when speaking Korean.

  26. We sometimes use 我 to replace 我的, or 他 for 他的, for example 我的家 becomes 我家. This sounds more natural in conversation. English speakers have difficulty getting used to this since “my house” cannot be “me house”

  27. Thats strange, I always pronounce you’re as you-r also, I was going to use the 我家 example also, funny thing, In dublin street talk many people do indeed say “me house”.

  28. These may not count as contractions:

    今天 = 今儿
    名字 = 名儿

  29. Well “smart” in British English often means “impressive” or “well-dressed”, in the same way that Americans say “sharp”. “Clever” in British English (I’m guessing, not actually being British myself) mainly refers to pure intelligence or wit.

    As for contractions, I had never noticed the Chinese propensity to avoid them until this afternoon when a student of mine simply wouldn’t read the word “I’m”, instead opting for “I am” no matter how many times I told her not to.

    Then again, I’m little better in respect to Chinese. Being an adopted southerner, I dislike 儿 and will often ignore it when reading passages aloud in class.

  30. The form swallowed by newline. That should be

    今天 = 今儿 名字 = 名儿

  31. Ben’s comment about “we’re” and “were” being pronounced the same by Americans does not apply to British English. For Brits “we’re” is pronounced the same as “weir” (rhymes with “spear”) whereas “were” is pronounced the same as “whirr” (rhymes with “spur”). However in British English “your” and “you’re” are pronounced exactly the same.

    Similar confusion is caused by they’re, their and there.

  32. I’d say that for the most part Chinese don’t contract words but abbreviate longer words or phrases – they omit characters that are redundant (as per the many examples above like 我家, instead of 我的家.)

    As for learning contractions and the clever/smart debates, I’d say that has more to do with bad teachers and out of date textbooks. Yes, most students grew up with British textbooks that wouldn’t use contractions much, but they’ve long since adopted American English. But even the so-called American English texts (written by Chinese English speakers who probably learned British English in their youth), teach hopelessly unnatural speech. Lantian made a good point above about the word clever. You’d probably get punked the first day of high school if you used that word in the States or Canada. And yes, we do speak English up there.

    The out of date textbooks should all disappear if services like ChinesePod, EnglishPod and audio books are finally picked up on by school boards as they should be. (Little marketing help, anyone?) If I was running a school I think books would be the last purchase on my mind.

  33. Well, I teach English to French-speakers in Montreal, and they usually have problems with contractions too. It’s not that they can’t pronounce them, but they really don’t like doing it (and yes, French has contractions galore, especially spoken French). I figured it probably is a heck of a lot easier for non-native speakers to figure out a sentence in English one. word. at. a. time.

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