language corner

Gonna Wanna

When dialects collide
July 5, 2011

Writing the way people speak is one way to make sure your copy doesn’t become bloviated or stodgy. But journalists have always taken great liberties with how they transcribe the way people speak.

“Gonna” and “wanna” are endemic in spoken speech, for example. Whether they’re a good idea for written speech is open to interpretation. Seeing it, after all, often has a different impact than hearing it.

Both “gonna” and “wanna” are informal pronunciations, nonstandard spellings, dialect. They’re also contractions, the way “won’t” is a contraction of “will not.” But while “won’t” is standard English, “gonna” and “wanna” and their ilk aren’t, yet: They make the speaker sound, well, substandard.

Sure, it might be OK to quote the player who just hit the winning home run as saying “I knew I was gonna get swarmed,” showing that his excitement got in the way of his diction. But to quote Senator Lindsey Graham, just back from assessing the Taliban’s strength, as saying, “Until Pakistan begins to help, it’s gonna be very difficult” makes him sound less serious.

There are times when you want to convey that tone, though: “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya” has a very different feel from “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for you.”

The Associated Press Stylebook says, “Do not use substandard spellings such as gonna or wanna in attempts to convey regional dialects or informal pronunciations, except to help a desired touch or to convey an emphasis by the speaker.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is even stronger, saying that the results of using such dialect “are likely to be subjective (since they depend on the home region of speaker and listener) and will strike at least some readers as patronizing. After all, national leaders and corporate executives have been known to say ‘gonna’ and ‘hadda’ and perhaps ‘y’all.’”

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That’s why many publications change “gonna” to “going to” inside quotations as well as out. If someone says “I’m gonna do what I shoulda,” it’s OK to write it as “I’m going to do what I should have” if there’s no reason to use dialect. (Changing pronunciation is different from changing words; if someone says “I ain’t,” for example, changing it to “I’m not” should not be acceptable.)

But, you say, “going to” is not what the person SAID! OK, then, next time you quote a Cockney politician, you’ll have to write “I ’ate the prime ministes’ policies”; the visitor from Massachusetts will have to complain about “all the cahs driving around”; others will have to say “there’s not enough draws in that dresser.” (You change those all the time, right?) You also have to start including “um,” “er,” “like,” and all those other verbal tics to quotes, not to mention adding question marks at the end? The way people talk?

You gotta, like pay, ah, more attention to what, you know, your writing says?

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.