As Etymonline suggests, the use of “a” meaning “have” in expressions like “should have” (shoulda), “could have” (coulda) and “would have” (woulda) were almost standard usage until the 17th century:


verbal phrase, 1902, representing casual (American) pronunciation of should have.

  • The use of a or 'a to represent a loose pronunciation of have as an auxiliary verb is attested from mid-14c. and was all but standard English until 17c. (also preserved in coulda, woulda).

Similar expressions like gonna (going to) and wanna (want to) have a less clear origin.

From BBC.co.uk:

  • Wanna and gonna are frequently used in speech in informal colloquial English, particularly American English, instead of ‘want to’ and ‘going to’. You will also see them used in writing in quotes of direct speech to show the conversational pronunciation of ‘want to’ and ‘going to’.

Gonna appears to have similar earlier usages in Scottish dialect (ganna, gaumna) but it is not clear if they are related to the AmE ones:


representing the casual pronunciation of ‘want to’, by 1896.


  • attempt to represent the casual pronunciation of ‘going to’. In Scottish dialect, ganna, gaunna recorded from 1806.

  • Going to - Casually pronounced form : I'm gonna veg out tonight (1913+) - (Dictionary.com)

According to the above sources, the cited expressions appear to have rather old origins, but they emerged, or probably reemerged, around the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century mainly in American English.


  • Is there evidence that the older original usage of shoulda, coulda etc. actually influenced by assonance the later expressions like gonna and wanna, or have they unrelated origins?

  • Is there a plausible reason why this “a” usage emerged mainly in AmE?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MetaEd
    Jun 23, 2017 at 17:42
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    I'm afraid this is beyond my ability write a well phased and referenced answer, but after listening to a linguistics lecture series, I believe what is being applied here is the natural shortening of words relating to the "principle of least resistance". The evolution of language regularly has trailing words shortened or turned into suffixes. Also, B's become P's and vowel shifts upward reflect ease. "god bless you" became "good bye". But why less so in GB ? The written language and purposeful efforts slow the changes. The English might be more vested in maintaining their language as is.
    – Tom22
    Jun 24, 2017 at 17:12
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    Gonna and wanna are used in Australian English.
    – dangph
    Jun 26, 2017 at 7:43
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    For what its worth, central Scottish accents commonly use 'gonny/gaunae' for 'going to'. There are different ways of pronouncing it depending on regional and social accent/formality. Slightly less prevalent but still common is 'wanny/wannae' for want to'. To my ear the 'want to' variation more clearly retains a residual glottal stop which I assume arises for the same reasons that 'butter' is often pronounced 'bu'ur' or 'bu'er'.
    – Spagirl
    Jun 27, 2017 at 12:04
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    @Phil: I really don't think it was Scots that established the Cherokee alphabet. It was designed by somebody who had seen written English, but didn't know the correspondence between letters and sounds very well. Otherwise, I don't think they would have used H for me, G for nah, Z for no, K for tso, and C for tli. Jun 27, 2017 at 17:27

4 Answers 4


I'll paste the relevant part of Postal and Pullum's (1978) article Traces and the Description of English Complementizer Contraction (Linguistic Inquiry 9:1):

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Why American? That is very difficult to say! Rarely does someone have a good answer for why a specific sound change happened at a specific time for a specific speech community. We can only say what sorts of thing tend to happen, and what sort of things are rare. In this case, you see that the verb+clitic combination forms a trochee, and the unstressed syllable is the one that gets reduced. It would be interesting if a stressed syllable were the one to get reduced. In fact, we'd even start to question whether it was truly stressed.

  • Why do you think this is only American? I hear it from plenty of British and Australian speakers as well. Those guys also have "our" weak forms of other function words like him, her, them.
    – tchrist
    Jun 27, 2017 at 2:49
  • Thanks for providing interesting evidence. Why this usage was, at least originally, typical of AmE, unfortunately remains unclear.
    – user66974
    Jun 27, 2017 at 9:18
  • At least in "Way Upstate NY," even want+to (i.e. not wanna) would have been something closer to "want tuh" (where "tuh" rhymes with "duh" and "uhhhhh"). So you'd wind up with things like "I normally wouldn't ask you to (too) go with me but...do you want to (tuh)?" Two forms for the same word. This form would very easily trend towards "wanna."
    – Yorik
    Jun 27, 2017 at 17:52

I believe this is a product of "phonetic realization" (See: Stress (linguistics), Wikipedia). Similar examples are "dropping the 'G' in 'ing'" ("doin'" rather than "doing") , and the contraction "y'all". I have seen similar changes in stress when reading old Irish poetry, so I am not sure it is expressly an Americanism.

Additionally, in this article I found that "have" is cited as having a "weak form" in English (SeeL Stress and vowel reduction in English, Wikipedia.

The vowel reduction in weak forms may be accompanied by other sound changes... The homonymy resulting from the use of some of the weak forms can lead to confusion in writing; the identity of the weak forms of have and of sometimes leads to misspellings such as "would of", "could of", etc. for would have, could have, etc.

It is reasonable to see that the confusion with the sound of "have" when said in a weak form is heard as "of", and may also be heard as "a". I.e. Should have --> should of --> should'a.


Warning: speculative rather than definitive.

I wonder if this may have evolved. You sometimes see of contracted to o' and occasionally "of" replaces "have" (not properly so, but still)...so:

Should have -> Should of -> Should o' -> Shoulda

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    Yup. Except that what happened was oral, not written. Writing comes after speech, and often doesn't change when speech does. In this case should can take the infinitive have to mark a past complement, even though (or, perhaps, because) the complement can't be inflected for tense. So should have became a common phrase chunk, and of course got pronounced as one word, should've /'ʃʊdəv/. This lost the final /v/ very easily, especially before a consonant, leaving /'ʃʊdə/. English words ending in /ə/ usually spell it with A, hence shoulda. Jun 24, 2017 at 17:13

This answer is also a bit speculative, I'm afraid. Another perceived Americanism is to remove the H from the beginning of words, such as herb'erb. If you apply this to should have in order to form should 'ave, it's a short step from there to shoulda.

  • This doesn't cover wanna (want to) nor gonna (going to), unless you can expand your answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 26, 2017 at 7:53
  • In the song "Safety Dance", they sing "we can go where we wanno", which could be the missing link between want 'o and wanna.
    – konaya
    Jun 26, 2017 at 9:09
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    The Americans never removed the H from herb. We pronounce it the same way that we've pronounced it for the last 300 years. The British don't know how to pronounce their own language; they started adding an H to herb some time in the 19th century. For all I know, they'll start adding an H to hour and heir soon. Jun 27, 2017 at 17:09
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    @PeterShor it's called updating an old model. The British are very good at that sort of thing :) But I seem to recall that many Americans do erroneously say an historical event and someone once said: In my speech, and I believe that of many other Americans, an "h" in an unstressed syllable is either not pronounced or barely pronounced, except when it follows a vowel sound or a pause Now, I wonder who said that...
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 28, 2017 at 7:23
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    @Mari-Lou: If you speak a dialect where you naturally say an 'istorical event rather than a historical event (and there are a number of Americans who do, at least where I live), it is probably quite hard to avoid writing it. And I don't think it matters that much if you do write it; it's not seen as an inferior dialect. But it's much harder to learn this form, as you need to say an 'istorical event but a history. And there's utterly no reason to learn it; you should learn to speak the way most of us do. Jun 28, 2017 at 11:05

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