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I learned these three words from Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner's English Dictionary.

  • got|ta /g'ɒtə/
    Gotta is used in written English to represent the words 'got to' when they are pronounced > informally, with the meaning 'have to' or 'must'.
    Prices are high and our kids gotta eat.

  • wan|na /w'ɒnə/
    Wanna is used in written English to represent the words 'want to' when they are pronounced informally.
    I wanna be married to you. Do you wanna be married to me?

  • gon|na /g'ɒnə, AM g'ɔːnə/
    Gonna is used in written English to represent the words 'going to' when they are pronounced informally.
    Then what am I gonna do?

Here are my questions:

  1. How often are these words used in oral English?
  2. Are they only used in informal speech/conversations?
  3. Do educated people also use these words?
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5  
I’ve never heard gonna pronounced /g'ɒnə/. It’s usually /'gʌnə/ (homophone of gunner in many non-rhotic accents) or /'gənə/. –  Jon Purdy Mar 23 '12 at 4:15
3  
I gotta say, you might wanna add hafta to this list... –  J.R. Mar 23 '12 at 14:28
    
Bart: I was gonna put buttresses in. Skinner: Gonna, wounna, shounna. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 23 '12 at 15:20

8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

As an American, I can report that everyone I know, even highly educated people, use these forms several times a day. People in business meetings, professors giving lectures,... everyone. Sometimes people are being slow, clear, and deliberate, in which case they will pronounce the full phrase, which does sound more formal by comparison.

My sense, as an amateur linguist, is that the problem lies on the fact that it is difficult to quickly turn the vocal cords on and off. (Please note that "gotta" is actually pronounced /g'ɒdə/, with a d sound) It takes time to slow down and make the change. In each of these examples, the entire word is pronounced with voiced sounds. These types of drifts happen in every language and lose stigma over time.

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5  
+1, but it's actually pronounced with alveolar tap/flap sound, [ɾ], not a [d] sound, and I think the phoneme is still /t/, not /d/. See the Wikipedia article "Intervocalic alveolar-flapping"‌​. –  ruakh Mar 23 '12 at 15:07
    
I'd add that one piece contributing to the use of "gotta" is that "got to" would often sound awkward grammatically in places where gotta seem to work fine. using "have got to" to mean "must" isn't much better, so at least in the case of "gotta, I'd argue that the supposedly original "got to" is less correct than the informal "gotta" –  Chris Bye Mar 23 '12 at 16:41
    
[](umich.edu/~jlawler/aue/gonna.html) –  John Lawler Mar 23 '12 at 17:24

As far as I know, everyone seems to use it. It's like an unavoidable speech habit, that even the "educated people" have.

It's called "assimilation", and refers to how words are "run in" together. They kind of join up and it makes speaking much easier, instead of painstakingly breathing out every single syllable clearly.

This happens in all sorts of languages, and among all sorts of people. So yes, to answer your first question, these words are used rather commonly in oral English, especially in America.

Your second question: In most cases yes. In formal situations, people try to avoid using them, instead going for their more "correct" form, such as "going to" instead of "gonna". Example: a television news program, where the newsreader musn't slur his words.

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I concur with the three who have chimed in.

I wanted to add that, unlike contractions, such assimilations are spoken forms. They are rarely written, especially outside of quotation marks.

That said, I did some research to verify my assertion, and it appears erroneous. Gotta is making its way into literature, particularly when authors want to convey something exciting, informal, or hip. An amazon search returned almost one thousand books with the word Gotta in the title; they include:

  • 10 Things You Gotta Know About Choosing a College
  • If You're Trying To Get Better Grades & Higher Test Scores In Social Studies You've Gotta Have This Book
  • You Gotta Have GUTS!
  • Stuff You Gotta Know: Straight Talk on Real Life
  • A Guy's Gotta Eat
  • A Woman's Gotta Do What a Woman's Gotta Do
  • The Teen Girl's Gotta-Have-It Guide to Money
  • Uh Oh! Gotta Go!: Potty Tales From Toddlers
  • and, my personal favorite: You Gotta-Wanna (a book about sales advice)

Still, I'm not sure if these authors would assert that gotta is standard English, just because the term has worked its way onto the covers of their books; the use of non-standard English appears to be purposeful. Still, I gotta admit, I was surprised.

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I think they are spoken very frequently by Americans. Even well-educated people say things like, "Well, I gotta go" when ending a phone call. But all of these words are very informal and slangy.

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"Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now..." –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 23 '12 at 15:16

I'm adding this as an answer because it's too long to fit as a comment... The odd thing to me about gonna, gotta, and wanna (and their close relative hafta, and their more distant relative gimme) isn't that these words have become mainstream in both spoken and informal written American English; it's that the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series refuses to acknowledge their existence. The Eleventh Collegiate does include entries for two related nouns—gimme and wannabe—but it doesn't provide entries for the common contractions from which those terms arose.

Ultimately, if one purpose of a dictionary is to identify and define commonly used words in a language, Merriam-Webster's diffidence toward this class of contractions is hard to explain. In contrast, the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999), the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (2000) and the New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) include entries for four of the five contractions I've mentioned (the exception in all three cases is hafta), although they don't agree entirely about the status of those four words.

Encarta calls gimme, gonna, and wanna "nonstandard," but characterizes gotta as "informal." For its part, the New Oxford American lists gonna and wanna simply as "Informal," but it says that gimme and gotta are "Informal...(not acceptable in standard use)." The Fourth American Heritage labels all four terms "informal."

Perhaps Merriam-Webster fears that, if it were to acknowledge any of these terms, it would be obliged to open its doors to an indefinite number of other common unpunctuated contractions: oughtta, coulda, woulda, shoulda, kinda, sorta, dammit, and so on. It's not a very compelling reason, though, so perhaps some other rationale lies behind the policy.

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My friends and I rarely use "gotta", "wanna", and "gonna". When I was in college a few years ago, I become friends with a French exchange student. I noticed he used "gonna" and "wanna" a lot. And I've kept an ear out for the words since. I've noticed that people don't speak English as a native language (for lack of a better term) say those words a lot. The only word I hear native English speakers use, in all but formal speech, is "gotta". I never say "wanna", I always say "I would like", or "Would you like." Saying "do you want to" is pretty cumbersome in everyday speech. I sure as hell don't say "gonna". I enunciate so I say "I'm going to go to the store" and never "I'm gonna go to the store."

My friends and I are very educated.

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Where are you from? I'm in and from the UK and also "very educated", and my experience is totally different. I would say that almost everyone uses "gonna" "wanna" "hafta" etc in speech. –  Rupe Jul 29 at 10:41

Slurring or runnings word together is common in practically every language. Were that not the case, speaking would be unduly time consuming with little increase in meaning. If you ever try watching subtitles in Spanish or French you will be amazed at how much reading seems to drop away from the speaking. Realistically speaking, those words you offered are exemplary of pronunciation the great majority of the time; such that perfect elocution is comparative very rare.

Now, public speaking or acting can be quite different but precise enunciation is a skill developed only with considerable training and practice. Listening today to actors and actors in the thirties gives a good view of how much more precise speaking was expected to be then as opposed to now, partly because of the recording equipment available then. With the decline of the broadcast networks, street speech has become fairly much the standard in broadcasting.

So, unless you are Data, as to use of those spellings in literature, they are reserved for quotations (for character devepment) in fiction, and as a friendly pretense in chats and forums on the internet.

If uncertain, use standard spelling. People will still hear and say standard spellings in in their own manner of speaking, unless reading aloud to an audience.

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I think that phonetically, "gonna" and "wanna" are used >90% of the time, at least in American English, when they come before verbs. I cannot think of a time I would ever pronounce "going to walk" as written, except if talking slowly to a foreigner or a child who didn't seem to understand me. Moreover, pronouncing "going to" carefully (before a verb) is a good mark of a foreigner.

This is because in modern English, these verbs (and also hafta, gotta) are in the process of being reanalyzed as modals (like does/can/must/etc.). When they don't come before verbs, the phonetic collapse is prohibited. For instance "I'm going to school" cannot be pronounced with "gonna;" this is descriptively wrong in every dialect of English, no matter how informal (unless school is being used as a verb).

In writing, putting "gonna" is non-standard. Thus, even when we transcribe someone clearly saying "gonna," we write "going to." At 30:30 of this YouTube video, Obama says "We are gonna deepen our investment" and it is transcribed as "going to."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxWUG2o-w-k

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/full-text-of-president-obamas-commencement-address-at-west-point/2014/05/28/cfbcdcaa-e670-11e3-afc6-a1dd9407abcf_story.html

(note though, that at 2:10, he clearly pronounces "we want to explode with pride," presumably because he is reading written text, namely, a letter written by a father.)

There is a weird phenomenon whereby writers who want to indicate that a character is casual or folksy or from the country write "gonna/wanna/etc." in these contexts, even though in reality these are features of everyone's dialect in both casual and non-casual speech (at least in the US). Maybe the implication is, "this person is so folksy, that even if she were writing this, she'd still say gonna."

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A data point which is famous in generative linguistics but is valid regardless of your stance on such theories. "This is the picture that I wanna hang on the wall" is descriptively grammatical, but "This is the candidate that I wanna win the election" is not, you must say "want to." (In my analaysis this is because the modal "wanna" must be the subject of the following verb as with the older modals should/must/etc. In the generative analysis it's because there's an invisible "trace" of the subject "president" before the "to" that got moved but still blocks phonetic assimilation.) –  hunter Jul 29 at 8:56

protected by RegDwigнt Nov 25 '13 at 12:27

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