‘Going to’ Contractions

BalloonThe phrase ‘going to‘ has two meanings in English. It can, of course, refer to one’s intent to make a physical journey (as in ‘I am going to the store’). But it can also refer to the intent to do anything, as in ‘I am going to talk with her’ or ‘they are going to take a balloon ride.’

It is this latter sense of ‘going to’ that is especially susceptible to contraction, the process of vowels and consonants being elided for the sake of efficiency. ‘Going to’ features an ‘ng’ followed by a ‘t,’ which is a rather awkward juxtaposition of sounds in English. Our inclination is to assimilate nasals so that they conform with proceeding consonants, hence ‘goin’ to‘ (with an alveolar ‘n’ that fits nicely with the ‘t’) is easier to say than ‘going to’ (with a velar nasal).

Of course, we don’t stop there. We often elide the ‘t’ and drop the diphthong in ‘going’ completely, resulting in one of the more ubiquitous ‘incorrect’ words in English: ‘gonna.’ This contraction is unique in that it’s only used in specific contexts. Namely, we can use ‘gonna’ when we’re describing the intent to do something (“I’m gonna talk with her”), but not our intent to go somewhere (‘I’m gonna my sister’s house’ doesn’t sound right, does it?).

‘Gonna’ can be reduced even further. I’ll cite an example from personal experience. Something I’ve noticed among younger American English speakers is the contraction of ‘I’m going to’ something like ‘angunna‘ (ɑŋɘnə). In this case, the ‘m’ in ‘I’m’ is assimilated with the ‘g’ in ‘gonna,’ (with the ‘g’ itself invariably dropped). Quite an evolution from ‘I am going to!’

Then there is a dialect-specific contraction that is one of the most extreme in the English language. That would be African-American Vernacular English’s ‘Ima‘ (ɑmɘ). ‘Gonna’ is entirely elided here; the 9-phoneme phrase ‘I am going to’ is contracted to a mere three sounds.

(I’ve noticed an interesting variant of ‘Ima,’ in which everything after ‘I’m’ is smoothed out into a single, nasal, rounded vowel. As a recent commenter here observed, this contraction might be more along the lines of ‘Imo,’ of which something like ɑmɵ̃ seems a good representation.)

Since we are so inclined to contract the living daylights out of ‘going to,’ it’s not unreasonable to ask why we use ‘going to’ so much in the first place. Why do we not just scrap it and go with ‘will?’ Both are variations of the same simple future tense.  But ‘I will’ is much more efficient than ‘I am going to.’

The answer is that there are subtle shades of meaning that ‘going to‘ expresses that ‘will‘ does not. Not that there aren’t situations where the two are nearly interchangeable. The difference between the meaning of ‘I will talk to Molly about it’ and ‘I’m gonna talk to Molly about it’ are slight. Yet while ‘I’m gonna ask Molly to marry me’ makes sense, ‘I will ask Molly to marry me’ sounds strange. The former is full of romantic longing, while the latter has the tenor of a waiter saying he’ll consult the chef about the wine list.*

And so ‘going to‘ perseveres, its clumsiness inspiring a variety of interesting contractions. Any others worth noting?

*I’d recommend this brief run down at The English Page for a more complete description of the difference of the two.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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50 Responses to ‘Going to’ Contractions

  1. AL says:

    I’ve noticed a lot of younger people using “tryna” for “trying to.” It annoyed me at first, until I realized by hypocrisy — I use gonna constantly.

    • gaelsano says:

      How come people are “smart” enough to say “Trying to” but instead of “try to” they say “try and”? That one always bothered me.

      • Rodger C says:

        “Try and” has been common in many forms of English for a long time, especially (I think) inthe construction “to try …”. I’ve even noticed it in Tolkien, who was, after all, a linguist.

  2. Marc Lavitt says:

    Don’t forget the interrogatory “gunna, as in “Gunna go?” Or the emphatic: “Gunna!”

    • AG says:

      Interesting. I’ve never heard either one of those.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Is “gunna” meant to represent something different than “gonna”? It looks to me like it would be pronounced the same as “gonna”. So why the variant spelling?

      And I don’t see how the interrogatory usages of “gonna” is any different from the usages already mentioned. While there’s a dropping of the 2nd person pronoun, that’s a separate thing from the “going to” contraction.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    In some Jamaican English I’ve heard the word “g’wan,” as in “I g’wan do you right tonight, baby.” (sometimes it’s “I’m g’wan…”).
    [“G’wan” can also be used differently (as a command) to mean “go on,” as in “get out of here.”]

  4. SNA says:

    Like many other features of AAVE, amõ for “I’m going to” is also found in white Southern speech. I first noticed this when I moved to the South almost 5 years ago. It wouldn’t surprise me if amə was found in white Southern speech too.

    I haven’t heard “angunna” aŋənə. I’ll have to listen for that. I’m pretty sure I have heard “amunna” amənə though. I also associate this with the South. I’m not sure it’s actually unique to the South though (even excluding AAVE).

    • m.m. says:

      Um… yeah, “Ima” is found everywhere. I’ve heard it used by western, eastern, northern, canadian speakers… If I had to say, I’d say its a northamericanism. I can’t recall any british speakers using the construct P:

      • SNA says:

        I never mentioned “Ima” in my post. Have you been everywhere?

        • m.m. says:

          amə = Ima

          It just strikes me as very odd that its being pinned down to AAVE or the south. The fact that you didn’t hear it before moving to the south astonishes me. Even very standard formal speakers like my brother use it on occasion. And theres no southern or aave connection. Just an american one.

        • SNA says:

          That sounds lovely, but why should I listen to what you have to say about this?

        • Ellen K. says:

          Wouldn’t most Americans say aimə rather than amə? Southerners and AAVE have a monophthong, a, for the vowel in “I’m”, whereas most Americans have a diphthong, ai. So it makes sense that amə and amõ are AAVE and Southern.

        • Ellen K. says:

          (repost with corrected HTML tags)

          Wouldn’t most Americans say aimə rather than amə? Southerners and AAVE have a monophthong, a, for the vowel in “I’m”, whereas most Americans have a diphthong, ai. So it makes sense that amə and amõ are AAVE and Southern.

        • Meta says:

          @Ellen K: Speaking just for myself (I’m from the mid-Atlantic and speak mostly Standard American), the vowel in my “I’m” often becomes something like a in casual conversation (it’s ai in more formal settings). The vowel I use in “I’m” is much shorter than a Southerner would use, and perhaps a little closer to ʌ.

          So when I say “amunna”, which is only used in casual conversation anyway, I pronounce it amənə. My boyfriend speaks a blend of mid-Atlantic and Standard American; he occasionally says “Ima” and always pronounces it amə. I’ve never heard anyone say aimənə or aimə.

        • SNA says:

          I have heard aimənə. I think amənə is very widespread though. Monophthongization of /aɪ/ before the resonants (sonorants) /l/, /r/, /m/ and /n/ can be found outside of the South, especially in fast, casual speech (see the Atlas of North American English). However, I still think it’s more common in some areas (like the Mid-Atlantic, which to my ear is kind of Southern) than others. Jim Cramer (the crazy, screaming guy from the TV show Mad Money) is from the Mid-Atlantic area and he always introduces himself by saying [ɑ̟m ʤɪm kɹeɪmɚ]. This is very salient to me.

          But anyway, it’s my impression that amənə is the more widespread form and that amə (and amõ, amo, etc.) is AAVE and Southern (I immediately thought of Kanye West when someone mentioned amə). I’m completely okay with other people having a different impression from me, so long as they don’t act like their impression is superior to mine, even though they’re both nothing more than an impression (I won’t mention any names).

  5. D Sky Onosson says:

    I’m a 40-year-old white Canadian, and I certainly hear and use forms like tɹaɪnə and aŋənə (actually often just ŋ̩ənə). While they are certainly casual and colloquial, they don’t strike me as either recent or youthful, but quite standard.

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    -‘I will ask Molly to marry me’ sounds strange.-

    Not if you add JUST:

    Does she love you?
    -Well…I’ll just ask her to marry me.

    A scene from a movie:

    ”We’re going to die!
    -No we won’t!”
    (why a sudden change of tenses?)

    -Going to- can sound strange too:

    (Ding dong) -I’ll get the door (ok)
    (Ding dong)-I’m gonna get the door (strange)
    (Ding dong)-I’m getting the door (between the two in acceptability)

    • Ellen K. says:

      You did something else beside adding JUST, though. You also changed “I will” to “I’ll”. “I will ask Molly to marry me” is not the same as “I’ll ask Molly to marry me”.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Seems to me we can use “gonna” with intent to go somewhere: “I’m going to go to my sister’s house.” = “I’m gonna go to my sister’s house”. It needs one “go” form for the future time, and another for the action, in order for “gonna” to work, but it CAN be used.

      What we can’t do is use it where “to” represents a preposition that precedes a noun, rather than a particle that proceeds a verb. It’s the function of “to” that matters, the grammatical construction of the sentence, not the type of action we are intending to do.

    • boynamedsue says:

      I recommend reading the link Mr T put up.

      The difference between in meaning between will and going to is actually very well understood, and a bright student of English as a foreign language could probably explain it to you, while most of us native speakers have no idea.

      In the examples you give, the reason going to sounds strange is that will is used the moment we decide something, whereas going to is used for things we have already decided on doing (this is only one of a range of differences in use, but it’s probably one of the most important).

      • D Sky Onosson says:

        I can say “I’ll be at work tomorrow” even though I didn’t just now decide to do it.

        • boynamedsue says:

          That could come under one of the other uses of will, a future fact e.g. The Olympic Games’ll be held in London in 2012.

          Or possibly as the state verb form of the future continuous. With state verbs like “be”, you very rarely use the gerund *:

          So you’d say (in this case) “I’ll be working tomorrow”, not “I’ll work tomorrow”.

          It could alo be a promise or an assurance, which also takes will.

          Future forms are probably the most complicated aspect of English to get right, but they give an incredible richness and subtlety of meaning to very simple phrases.

          * yes there are exceptions, thank you MacDonalds for “I’m loving it”, you probably cost about 15 million grade points in total for EFL students worldwide with that ad campaign.

        • D Sky Onosson says:

          (replying to boynamedsue)

          There are many instances where both forms are equally acceptable and :

          If my wife tells me “I’ve got to go get some groceries”, I can spontaneously say either of:

          “I’ll come, too” or “I’m gonna come, too”

          without anyone difference in meaning or connotation.

          I’m not sure if anyone has done any corpus studies on the frequency of use of both forms and related it to any differences in meaning, but my personal experience as a native speaker leads me to believe they are virtually interchangeable, apart from their different syntax.

        • D Sky Onosson says:

          Sorry, the beginning of that last comment became kind of garbled somehow.

        • boynamedsue says:

          From D SKY: If my wife tells me “I’ve got to go get some groceries”, I can spontaneously say either of:

          “I’ll come, too” or “I’m gonna come, too”

          There is a difference in implication, an implied time of consideration with the second example. The first carries an implication of suggestion and spontaneity.

          Like I say, native speakers often really don’t realise what they are doing with future tenses because it’s so natural.

        • D Sky Onosson says:

          I’ll have to (respectfully!) disagree that such an implication is necessary.

      • boynamedsue says:

        Having said that, I think Americans do use “going to” for instant decisions, sometimes. It’s one of the things that strikes me as “wrong” when I watch American TV shows.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    -Namely, we can use ‘gonna’ when we’re describing the intent to do something (“I’m gonna talk with her”), but not our intent to go somewhere (‘I’m gonna my sister’s house’ doesn’t sound right, does it?).-

    On the other hand, the generalized WANNA is heard:
    Wanna go? (want to go)
    Wanna sandwich? (want a sandwich)

    • gaelsano says:

      ??? Really? I always regarded people who said or wrote “Are you Sam? Yes, I’m!” or “I’m gonna home” or “I wanna hot dog” to be EFL students.

      Maybe I’m too old now and the new generation’s different. I could never imagine saying “I wanna pizza” instead of “I want a pizza.” I felt like there is a natural break at “I want…NOUN” as opposed to “I want to…VERB.” Many languages make this distinction grammatically and I felt like it was a somewhat universal pattern in languages, that the human mind can separate nouns and verbs quite easily.

      • DL says:

        Maybe it’s regional (I’m in Texas), but, to me, “wanna” is commonplace but signifies informality much more than “gonna” (particularly if it’s in place of “want to” rather than “want a”). As in, I would use “gonna” and “wanna” with my friends, “gonna” and “want to” with my boss, and “going to” and “want to” with the president.

    • Ellen K. says:

      “Wanna go” is parallel to “gonna go”, which, as I note in a comment just above, we can and do say.

      “Wanna sandwich” is simply t-deletion, same as winter, Santa, etc said without the T sound, followed by the normal pronunciation of the indefinite article.

  8. gaelsano says:

    Anyone who’s studied Korean will be all too familiar with the conundrums when deciding which tense to use. Japanese, a cousin, has no real future tense, but Korean’s got at least four in a general sense.

    하겠다
    할 거다
    할게
    할래
    하기로 하다

    They all carry different connotations and are used in different situations. Learning the differences is as hard as a Korean learning that 보다 can mean see, look, watch, guard, observe. They all mean the same thing essentially, but if you say “I saw some TV last night,” you sound bizarre. It’s not a case of only one being grammatically correct; you have to intuitively feel if you should use 할게 or 할 거야, for example.

    Korean has similar things going with verb conjugations for at least four different “because”s.

    하여(서)
    하니까
    하기 때문에
    하테니까

    Korean also shares a propensity for contractions as well. 하려고 하면 -> 하려면. It also has spoken contractions for words that have no real meaning, but change the flavor of the statement. Let’s look at the expression “come (here).” 와 and 와보아/와봐 have similar levels of politeness and for conversational Korean only, but many statements sound very odd with improper use of ~보아/봐 which gets contracted to ~바. Hence, you have a bar chain named “Wa Bar,” which when spoken in a non-rhotic accent, sounds close to 와바 or “come (in).” Sometimes the 보다 verb (보아(용)/봐(요)) as a suffixed verb can mean “to try” or “(do it) and see” but that doesn’t account for 와바 which I would never translate as “try coming here” nor for why you say 제주에 가 본적이 있니? as opposed to 제주에 간 적이 있니?

    Korean has so many tenses and conjugations for nearly identical concepts and will, like Anglophones, choose contraction over a simpler expression.

  9. Eugene says:

    The commonality between gonna, wanna, and even trynta is the union of two clauses. GO to LEAVE, WANT to LEAVE, and TRY to LEAVE, for example. This is a situation in which grammaticalization happens. That’s where modals and auxiliaries come from.
    In grammaticalization, the historical main clause verb is gradually reanalyzed, reduced, and loses some of its semantic content. Present day will, the future modal, is an example. Once upon a time it meant want or intend. It still does in German.
    Anyway, GO to PLACE is quite a different construction and doesn’t undergo the same kind of reduction. At this moment in the language, going to eat and going to school are two different constructions. Go to eat is a periphrastic future construction with an infinitive complement . Go to school is a motion verb with a goal in the form of a preposition. The two constructions no longer mean the same thing. The resemblance is a coincidence, an historical curiosity.
    Of course, going to work could be an example of either the motion verb or the periphrastic future.

  10. Jerome Rainey says:

    George Carlin talked about the word “ommina” in a PBS show on the English language once, and wondered why this common word wasn’t in any dictionary. (I couldn’t find a reference to it using Google, though.) I think “ommina” is closer to the way I say it than /ɑŋɘnə/.

    • D Sky Onosson says:

      Makes sense there would be some variation – in one case, the /m/ and /g/ merge into the velar nasal, in the other the /g/ is deleted – the rest is probably much the same.

  11. Mark says:

    I vaguely recall a Richard Pryor routine in which (fearing death, I think) he started saying “Imo die” over and over, and then gradually transformed it into some kind of song or chant. I did a brief search but didn’t find the exact routine, and it was a long, long time ago, so my memory is probably faulty. But I definitely remember the “Imo die” part.

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  13. boynamedsue says:

    Yorkshire dialect has an interesting grammaticalisation of “bound to” which replaced “going to”: “banna”

  14. Josh says:

    One thing I always notice about my speech and my area is that there are two forms of the contraction. When a verb follows it is “gonna”, as described here, but if the verb is ommitted it changes to something like “gunnoo” (phonetically). The same applies for “wanna” and “wonnoo”, but not with “tryna”, oddly. I am from Essex, England.

    1. Are you gonna go? / Yeh, but are you really “gunnoo”?
    2. Do you wana come out? / Yeh, but do you really “wonnoo”?

    yet:

    3. Are you tryna start a fight? / Yeh, but are you really tryna?

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  19. AUDIO NOIR says:

    I won’t comment on all the other contractions of “GOING TO” because there are so many and almost seem to be more a matter of individual taste than any hard and fast regionalism. However, “I’MA” (as in “I’ma get goin’ soon) is very distinctively American and is found quite widely throughout the States regardless of region or social status. I’ve even heard it used by presidents and news anchors. However, like “dude” TV and movies have started to spread it to other countries.

    I’ve noticed alot of Candians will often use the full “GOING TO” as do many RP speakers but almost never amongst Americans. So rarely in fact that it sounds odd to me the rare times I do hear it from Yankees.

    As for “WANNA” or TRYINA” i’d say at least with Americans it’s simply a result of the American aversion to pronouncing “T” as “T” unless it’s at the beginning of the word or when the vowel right after it is stressed (as in “DETECT”). “ATLANTA” is 99% of the time pronounced “ATLANNA” or “ALANNA”.

    Whether it’s glottolized, reduced to a “D” or simply dropped altogether the English language, it seems, has always had “issues” with the letter “T”.

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