The Old Editor's gonna getcha, getcha, getcha

The Baltimore Sun

Periodically, The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.

The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.


The question:  I am writing with a question about the increasing use of the word “gonna” as a substitute for “going to.” While I have been noticing this substitution for a while now (it first appeared in quotes in newspaper stories — my local paper is the Miami Herald), perhaps the most striking example I've seen so far was in an interview in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine. Publisher Jann Wenner conducted his fourth interview with President Obama — the day after the election.

What was striking was the use of both “gonna” and “going to” — not interchangeably, but intermittently.


The Old Editor answers: We have two issues to consider here: the way people talk, and the way we write about the way people talk.

We know that people, even highly educated and cultured people, do not always adhere to formal pronunciation. We all do what the linguists call code switching, shifting freely from formal to informal, or one dialect to another. In casual conversation with friends, you do not speak as you would when delivering the address on your being awarded a Nobel Prize, because how prim and prissy do you really want to be?

We code switch to match the occasion and the people we’re with. My wife tells me that my accent broadens slightly when I’m back in Kentucky where I grew up, talking with the people I grew up with.

So the president of the United States, like virtually every other American native speaker of English, sometimes says going to and sometimes says gonna. I’ll offer an assumption that Rolling Stone was not being careless, but chose to represent the variants as they occurred in the president’s speech. He code-switches fluently.

That leaves us with some thorny questions about the way we quote people, because speech does not directly transfer to writing. When we represent speech in writing, we supply spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and other written conventions that do not exist in spoken language.

And we make judgments about how far to go with phonetic spellings instead of standard spellings. When Dudley Fitts translated Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, he gave the Spartans Southern accents: “LAMPITO: Lawdy, when y’ touch me lahk that, / Ah feel lahk a heifer at the altar!” (Probably should have been altah, but never mind.) Obviously, indulging in this sort of thing runs the risk of appearing to hold the speaker up to ridicule.

But American English has been growing less formal for a century or more, and journalism has followed it by loosening up the diction and syntax. Not everyone chooses to go as far as Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson did forty years ago, but still, we want to achieve a conversational rather than a formal tone, and allowing an occasional phonetic spelling like gonna makes the writing more conversational.

How far to go is a judgment that writers and editors have to make, taking into account the tone the publication adopts and the potential to distract or irritate the reader.


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