I noticed in a TV show that the phrase "I want a refund" is pronounced like [I wanna refund]. I think the /t/ is dropped and /n/ is blended into the vowel. But how do Americans differentiate between wanna (want a) and wanna (want to) in this situation? Do they differentiate by the stress position on the word 'refund'?

I want a refund [sounds like: I wanna refund] refund used as a noun

I want to refund [sounds like: I wanna refund] refund used as a verb

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    From the context. – deadrat Jul 6 '15 at 23:42
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    Yep, if you're lucky you might get some other clues from pronunciation, but it won't always be the case. Consider I wanna fly. If said in a biology lab it might mean one thing, if said in a travel agency it might mean something else. – Jim Jul 6 '15 at 23:56
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    Thanks. I didn't know about that. So, "want + a" can sound exactly like "want to". – Zoltan King Jul 7 '15 at 0:00
  • @Jim: Standing next to a funfair ride, I wanna go could either mean you want to have a go on the ride, or to leave. You probably could arrange the stress patterns to remove ambiguity (exaggerated vowel enunciation would do it too), but it would certainly be possible to say it in a completely ambiguous tone. – FumbleFingers Jul 7 '15 at 0:49
  • @FumbleFingers- yeah and just imagine if they said, ‘I hafta go!” – Jim Jul 7 '15 at 2:09

deadrat nailed it.
I wanna refund.
According to you that could be understood.
I want to refund.
I want a refund.
Howeve, in general I want to refund, would not make sense.
Most people like to hang on to whatever money they earn from a sale, but even if that was not the case, you would be able to tell from the context whether the person wanted to give a refund, or if the person wanted to recieve a refund.


A couple of things.

First, "I want to refund" would always be followed by something else, e.g.

I want to refund this toaster.

In which case "refund" usually (but not always) carries a heavier emphasis on the second syllable.

But "I wanna refund" without any object given has to mean "I want a refund," and usually carries heavier emphasis on the first syllable.


As said, there's no general phonetic difference between "I want to" and "I want a" when they're condensed to "I wanna" (though some individuals may or may not say the two slightly differently). In practice it's not an issue because no one would say "I want a" without an object, so confusion can only arise if the speaker is cut off in mid-sentence, e.g. because their phone died, or a truck suddenly crashed through the window.

@Jim identifies the special case where the same word ('fly') can be either a noun or an intransitive verb. That doesn't come up much, but I'll admit it's a design flaw in spoken English.

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