Sometimes ‘Proper’ Speech Isn’t Correct Speech

My eldest daughter is in elementary school, and I recently started noticing that she was regularly enunciating “going to” and “want to,” no longer saying “gonna” or “wanna,” as many people do in casual speech. I’d say that most of us, on the fly, are more likely to ask, “What time is it gonna be?” than “What time is it going to be?” So, I decided to gently ask her about this, and she said her teachers had told her that “gonna” and “wanna” are not in the dictionary and one should instead say “going to” and “want to.”

I’m gonna diverge from this guidance.

First, though, I should note that her teachers are excellent. A week barely goes by that I don’t see, on the school’s website, or hear, directly from my daughter, about something they’ve done that shows them to be sterling instructors. They’ve also very recently gone through having to manage teaching small people under pandemic conditions, and I heartily salute them for grappling with that at a level I’m sure I would never have reached if put in their shoes. From my vantage point as a college teacher, their job seems harder than mine. Yet I still think the “gonna”/“wanna” issue merits unpacking.

To start, “gonna” and “wanna” are in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, with the part of speech for both given as a “pronunciation spelling.” Another way to describe these words is as contractions. They’re not the kind where an apostrophe welds two words together, such as “needn’t” and “shan’t,” but the general notion of combining two words into one is the same.

Perhaps there’s a prescribed pedagogical practice to instruct children to speak without those contractions. Or a philosophical sense that to speak properly is to enunciate the phrase “going to” instead of saying “gonna.” But if it’s anything like that notion, it is unsuitably broad. Possibly my daughter heard the teachers as referring to all speech when they meant something more specific.

But overall, the nut here is how foggily we tend to process that being human entails using a language in two ways — formal and informal — that have differences in vocabulary and grammar. Linguistics as a science includes a subfield called sociolinguistics, and being trained in it includes the understanding that people speak differently in different contexts.

Making that point initially struck me as hammering on something rather obvious. However, I’ve realized that it can be hard for people to quite get past an idea that written language, in its permanence and formality, is the real thing, while casual speech can be seen as a mere approximation, full of messy floutings of rules.

It makes sense to tell students to avoid contractions such as “gonna” and “wanna” in formal language, since there’s a long tradition in English of doing so and traditions die hard. But there’s also a tradition of using contractions that, similarly, dies hard. Contractions are a natural consequence of uttering words close together repeatedly over eons of time.

Contractions are eternal: As I noted in my book “Nine Nasty Words,” in Middle English, before “gonna” and “wanna” existed, “I do not have” was “Ic ne haebbe,” and the way it often came out was “Ic nabbe,” as if today we said, “I nave.” “I don’t want” was “Ic ne wille,” sometimes shortened to “Ic nille,” later begetting the term “willy-nilly.”

Contractions are cross-linguistically normal: There’s a Ukrainian folk song titled “Ty Zh Mene Pidmanula,” where the word-for-word is “you but me deceived” but really translates as “but you deceived me.” In the song, the “ty zh” is pronounced as a single word, “tyzh,” typical of colloquial Ukrainian. (Thank you, sweetie.)

Contractions don’t impede clarity: The word “don’t” in the preceding phrase is clearly a combination of “do” and “not.” Everyone reading this understands that. Avoiding contractions in formal language is more a stylistic rule than a necessary one. Why, then, shouldn’t we let contractions play in casual speech, which we engage in much more, using language intuitively, comfortable in the persuasiveness of our informality? Indeed, I hear the school’s teachers speaking casually from time to time, and I can attest that they routinely say “gonna” and “wanna” — as they should!

I suggested to my daughter that she reconsider following this particular advice given by her teachers, at least when she isn’t around them. But I also recognize that the fact that she learned the lesson so well may be evidence of just how effective her teachers are. Before she and I talked about it, I hadn’t heard a “gonna” or “wanna” from her in months. Perhaps being the child of a persnickety dad who crosses his ankles when he sits in an armchair had something to do with her receptivity to the idea? We may never know, but I’m worried that other kids might sense it as an affectation, a kind of precocious fuddy-duddyism. I want her to speak well, of course, but to be able to do that both formally and informally.

And in a way, speaking casually but without contractions is a way of not speaking well. I think of a scene from the latest season of HBO’s wonderful “Barry.” In the fifth episode, a character insists on taking over a grim task in a pressure-packed situation and says, with increasing urgency, “And I’m gonna do it … I’m doing it. Do you hear me? I’m gonna do it!” It would have been tone-deaf if this character had used “going to” rather than “gonna” and said, “And I’m going to do it … “I’m going to do it!” In casual speech, what’s “proper” in such an instance is “gonna.”

After we talked about this issue, my daughter wryly said to me and her sister, “My dad is teaching me not to speak well!” Ah, the plight of the linguist parent. I have no doubt that she’ll grow up able to speak “well,” but part of speaking well is being able to speak right. I wanna make sure she can.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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