Thursday 2 June 2011

I’m ɡənə clarify that!

On page 123 of the book Practical Phonetics and Phonology (2008, 2nd edition; Routledge), by Beverley Collins and Inger M. Mees, we read:

“When going to is used as a tense-former, it is typically pronounced /ɡənə/, e.g. What’s going to happen /ˈwɒts ɡənə ˈhæpən/. This form (sometimes shown as ‘gonna’ in dialogue) is often criticised by prescriptivists, but is in fact the norm in colloquial NRP [=current RP] and all other varieties of native-speaker English.”

I find this description of the contracted weak form of the phrase going to correct, but not totally. And now, I’m ɡənər – or ɡənu – explain why.

As my readers will know, going to, when it is used as a modal for expressing the future, can be pronounced in very many ways. Its ‘strong form’ is generally (ˈ)ɡəʊɪŋ tə/tu, usually depending on whether the following word begins with a consonant or a vowel sound. Its weak forms (the usual pronunciations) can vary, depending mainly on the rate of delivery and/or on more or less formal styles of speech. LPD (p. 344), for instance, has (ˈ)ɡəʊ in ə/u, (ˈ)ɡən ə/u, and (ˈ)ɡəʊ ɪnt ə/u for RP, and (ˈ)ɡoʊən ə, ənt̬ ə, for GenAm. Spelling pronunciations are sometimes possible, too, especially in reading: RP ˈɡɒnə(r), ˈɡʌnə(r); GenAm ˈɡɔːnə, ˈɡɑːnə.

Contrary to what we read in Practical Phonetics and Phonology, the use of (ˈ)ɡənə(r)/(ˈ)ɡənu is not at all restricted to colloquial RP. It can, in fact, also be found in more formal/less relaxed styles of speech. Here’s, for example, a selection of video clips from YouTube with Prime Minister David Cameron:

1) In this first video (28th January 2011), the Prime Minister is addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Notice how he pronounces the following utterances:

i) are we ɡənə get... (02.37)

ii) is never ɡənə happen... (12.10)

iii) ...are you ɡənu invest... (14.33)

iiii) ...or are you ɡənu invest where... (14.42)

2) In this second video (28th March 2010), Cameron, not yet Prime Minister, is asked a number of questions by a studio audience:

i)’s not ɡənə be government... (02.32)

ii)’s ɡənə be the private sector... (02.36)

iii)’s ɡənə be business... (02.37)

iiii) ...our plans to recognize marriage aren’t ɡənə disadvantage anyone... (08.16)

iiiii) ...we’re ɡənə hear it during the election campaign... (10.08)

iiiiii) we’re probably ɡənə talk about... (10.20)

iiiiiii) ...when are you ɡənə be saying... (05.20 – uttered by BBC presenter Jon Sopel)

3) And in this third video clip, Mr Cameron is being interviewed by Ben Lowe:

i) ...and you never know that when you’re ɡənə get the one that’s really... (0.51)

Finally, in connection with the possible pronunciations of going to, here’s another video (18th February 2011) in which the Prime Minister, as he’s explaining his opposition to the alternative vote (AV), pronounces the phrase want to as ˈwɒnə, a form which most teachers of EFL/ESL tend to shun because it is generally regarded as non-standard:

i) wɒnə know the best thing... (11.27).


  1. I quite agree. I've been arguing for many years that we ought to add the weak form(s) of going to to the list of weak forms we teach.

    I've found NNS teachers of phonetics sometimes very reluctant to accept this opinion.

  2. Alex,

    An even 'weaker' form of "going to" is quite often used, especially for the phrase "I'm going to". This turns up as /aɪŋnə/. Whew!

  3. And what about [wɒnə] in the final example? Could it possibly be that Mr Cameron was simply trying to sound "approachable"? Would you recommend this pronunciation to your pupils?

  4. Yes, Pacheco. I would recommend both [ɡənə] and [wɒnə] as weak forms.

  5. My readers might want to have a look at this post by J.W. Lewis:

  6. As some of the videos in my post have now been withdrawn by YouTube, you can watch this clip of Mr Cameron that has just been put online:

    Notice how he pronounces the sentence "...that's going to make a big difference to people's lives" at about 01.23.

  7. My readers may also want to take a look at this:

  8. The weakest of them all?
    /əŋənə/ or even /ŋnə/

  9. I think I've just made a mistake in my previous comment. The sequence /əŋənə/ stands for "I'm going to", not just for "going to" - sorry!