Gonna, Gotta, Wanna

By Maeve Maddox

Although not hearing impaired, I watch television with captions enabled. I like to see how words are spelled and how the running text differs from what is actually said by the actors and presenters. When I began to notice a frequency of the spelling gonna for “going to,” I decided to do a little research.

I discovered that gonna has an entry in the OED:

gonna: colloquial (especially U.S.) or vulgar pronunciation of “going to.”

Not only gonna, but wanna, gotta, and shoulda also have entries in OED, although they do not appear in Merriam-Webster.

Gonna, gotta and wanna are not contractions.

Contractions are shortenings like aren’t and can’t. The missing letters have been replaced by an apostrophe, and the original words are discernible in the contraction.

Contractions are acceptable in all but the most formal writing. Here are a few standard contractions:

aren’t = are not
can’t = cannot
couldn’t =could not
didn’t = did not
doesn’t = does not
don’t = do not
hadn’t = had not
hasn’t = has not
haven’t = have not
he’d = he had, he would
he’ll = he will, he shall
he’s = he is
I’d = I had, I would
I’ll = I will, I shall
I’ve = I have
isn’t = is not
it’s = it is
let’s = let us

The spellings gonna, gotta, and wanna, on the other hand, do not preserve the shape of the words they represent. They are not contractions, but reductions.

A linguistic reduction is the result of relaxed pronunciation. All speakers of all languages slur sounds and words together. Doing so is a normal part of spoken language. The more informal the situation, the more slurring goes on.

Speakers who are sensitive to the needs of others will speak more carefully in some situations than in others. For example, teenagers who barely move their lips when speaking to one another may be expected to enunciate in the classroom.

Courteous native speakers will take the trouble to pronounce words carefully when speaking to non-native speakers. Any English speaker who has received a formal education of ten years or more may be expected to speak clearly when being interviewed on television.

Reductions are not unknown in print. Novelists have long spelled out whatcha and coulda in dialogue in order to convey a character’s attributes. Until recently, however, such spellings were not commonly seen outside of fiction.

Gonna and gotta are not unexpected in song lyrics and on social media like Facebook, but now they are creeping into news coverage. Here are some examples from transcripts and quotations that have appeared on news sites:

“He’s gonna get to the bottom of what happened at the Fort Hood shooting.”

“I have no doubt she’s gonna run,” says Black.

“We’re gonna try to construct a bipartisan bill.”

Reductions heard in speech are not particularly jarring, but when they appear in print, they scream “Ignorant!” Unless a journalist desires to present a senator in a negative light, “going to” is a better choice than gonna, even in a direct quotation.

Professional writers especially might be expected to avoid nonstandard usage and spelling, but the evidence on Amazon is that for many authors, gonna, gotta, wanna, and even whatcha and coulda are acceptable written English. Here’s a sampling of book titles:

Dude, You’re Gonna Be a Dad!
10 Things You Gotta Know About Choosing a College
I Wanna Iguana (This one is the title of a children’s book.)
Whatcha Gonna Do with that Duck?
Coulda Been a Cowboy

Time will be the judge. An Ngram search shows that the use of gonna in printed books has risen dramatically since the 1960s, and gotta and wanna are making a little progress.

It’s possible that these words will become acceptable in standard English one day. Meanwhile, their use does not reflect well on writers who wish to be taken seriously.

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21 Responses to “Gonna, Gotta, Wanna”

  • ApK

    As far as the titles go, I have no problem with such things in popular literature. Title are often stylized, conversational, pulled from snippets of dialog, so as to be approachable and familiar.
    I would be disturbed by the use of such things in the titles of, say, legal or medical texts.

    But the news quotes. Geesh! It’s one thing if, for some reason, you are going to transcribe every utterance with total phonetic accuracy…to capture a dialect or accent say, but to transcribe just those sorts of reductions in print?
    Ugh. Sadly, I can’t say I’m surprised. My contempt for what passes for journalism – and so-called journalists – grows everyday.

    I wonder: Is ‘Journalism’ attached to a college’s English department these days, or is it only taught in beautician’s colleges, along with hair and makeup?

    ApK

  • ApK

    p.s. Television captioning, especially live captioning, is often amusing, but gets a pass from me for criticism.
    It’s hard enough to get down the general sounds of what’s being said, and it’s not like they have time to edit…. 🙂

  • John

    And what about “betcha”? 🙂

  • Maeve

    John,
    I forgot about that one, you betcha!

  • apk

    “Betcha” is a bit different. What exactly is it a reduction of?
    “Bet you?”
    Or doe s”you betcha!” imply “you can bet your life?”

    No one would say “You bet you!” so I could accept a reporter quoting “you betcha!” verbatim.

  • Connie Oswald Stofko

    I coached a young woman in English as a second language. After riding in the car with my teenage daughter, she asked me what that word was that Beth would say when giving directions. I didn’t know what she meant. The woman explained that it was something Beth said before “make a right at the corner.” I was stumped until the woman did her best to pronounce it: gonnawanna. My daughter was in the habit of saying, “You’re going to want to make a right at the second light.”

  • Danny

    How about examples of reductions from centuries past that HAVE made their way into standard English? Are there any? (I can’t think of any.)

  • Eden Collazo-Minchong

    I imagine “hafta” is another reduction.

  • Eden Collazo-Minchong

    apk, “betcha” could be “bet your” as in “(you can) bet your life (that)”.

  • Greg

    Direct quotations should always be faithful to the speaker’s words. If a senator says, “gonna,” journalists should write it that way.

  • Roberta B.

    …..or as I remember reading as a child, Uncle Remus (can we still say that?) would say “gwinna.” I remember it took me a while to figure that out. However, I think a lot of those stories (if they’re still available in print), have been “sanitized” to say “gonna”…….and if they’re not still available, then a lot of good stories with some good lessons would be lost (even the underlying one depicting an inhumane institution of our past).

    I agree with ApK – the use of such words is not so much for writers who wish to be taken seriously as for those who want to be approachable or informal. I’m guilty of using “kinda” or “sorta” in informal writing.

    @C O Stofko – “gonnawanna” ROFLMAO! This is the perfect example for many points made previously about foreign speakers.

  • Maeve

    Danny,
    Your question occurred to me as I was writing this post. I suspect that there are some such. I’ll research it.

  • Andy

    Great information! Perhaps we should create a new category called “reductractions” for words like “dontcha” and “wontcha” that are a product of both contraction and reduction.

  • ApK

    @Greg, in these cases, when the speaker said “gonna” he was likely slurring “going to.” You should not write “gonna” to quote him any more than you should write liberry, or Feberary or nuculer or any other mispronunciation, unless your intention, as the article mentioned, is to call attention to the mistakes.

    @Danny and Maeve, would the pronunciations of words like “Worcestershire” be reductions? How about about reduced spellings like “draft?”
    Or does it need to be both a reduced spelling AND pronunciation?

    I’m sure in reading etymologies I’ve seen some that mentioned words coming from corrupted shortenings of other words, but I also cannot recall any off the top of my head.

  • Danny

    @ApK, I’m no expert, but I would put reduced spellings in a different category. However, if Worcestershire eventually gets changed to Wooster, then it would fit. That’s probably less likely with place names than with common words.

  • venqax

    @Greg: An old adage, if not a rule, in journalism is that one of the surest ways to make anyone look like a drooling idiot is to quote them absolutely verbatim, with all the ums…, and ya knows, aborted statement openings, and half completed sentences that everyone commits while speaking. So unless that is your intention, it’s best and in fact expected that you will “clean up” what was said without affecting the substance or actual content of it. Court reporters do this too, and what they record is often extremely important.

  • thebluebird11

    @venqax etc: I agree that a (true) journalist should clean up after the speaker a bit if s/he doesn’t want to risk making the speaker look bad. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a senior healthcare documentation analyst (OK, I do quality assurance for medical transcription documentation), and there was a doctor who was constantly saying “in terms of” as filler in her reports; by constantly, I mean literally every other sentence. It was almost never appropriate. It made her look so lame that I asked my supervisor if we could just leave it out when she said it, and after thinking about it, my supervisor agreed. We now leave it out if she says it. There is another doctor who says “like” all the time; we take that out too. We certainly don’t transcribe the “ums,”
    “ahs,” “ehs” and “uhs” that dictators say when they’re pausing to think. Also, most hospitals don’t allow use of contractions except when directly quoting a patient, so even if the doctor says “I couldn’t find the report on the patient,” we have to transcribe it as “I could not find…” It makes it sound kind of stuffy, especially in one case where the dictator likes to say “Let’s renew his medication,” “Let’s get an x-ray of the foot,” etc. The transcriptionists’ knee-jerk reaction is to transcribe it as “Let us renew his medication,” “Let us get an x-ray…” When I see that in the course of my QA reviews, I change it to “Let’s.” shhh….don’t tell my boss….. 😉

  • apk

    “…that dictators say when they’re pausing…”

    Admit it, you all pictured a bearded, puffed-chested general thumping a podium when you read that.

    Bluebird, by leaving out well-enunciated filler phrases like “In terms of” don’t you risk accidentally removing those word when they are appropriate?

    ApK

  • Roberta B.

    Bluebird, wouldn’t a person whose dictation is transcribed be the “speaker”? I agree with ApK that the word “dictator’ has a far different connotation than someone who dictates into a recorder. Would they be more PO’d if they knew you were referring to them as a dictator than as a poor speaker?

    I told the “gonnawanna” story to my husband, and he got a big kick out of it, too!

    The one written “reduction” I’ve been seeing quite frequently is “prolly” for “probably.” With regard to internet comments, it looks like it’s catching on. Oh, no!

  • Lisa

    “Whatchu talking ’bout, Willis?”

    @Roberta: I edit online stories and one of the authors is from the midwest. In the dialogue, the main character says ‘prolly’ all the time and even in her emails, she uses ‘prolly’ instead of ‘probably’. It drives me nuts. 🙂

    (I wonder if anyone is still reading this post. lol Happy 4th to the USA people. 🙂 )

  • AnWulf

    English is rife with reductions … most Latinates hav been choppt up or “reduced” either by French or English. Even many Old English (Anglo-Saxon) words hav lost letters and/or syllables along the way.

    A standard in the Army is “sitrep” which is “situation report”. Sitrep is both said and written in standard Army talk.

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