I was eating out with some friends the other night when one of them stopped the conversation to announce that she needed to leave. (It isn’t as strange as it might sound, her English is about the low-to-mid intermediate range, so just jumping in can be difficult). Her reason was that she needed to wake up early the next day, because she was going to the countryside.
Except she didn’t say, “I’m going to the countryside.” She said:
I’m gonna the countryside.
The grammar-cogs in my brain stuttered so forcefully that I think my head actually tilted. I made the necessary accommodation without too much trouble, but even in that moment I was pretty sure that it is not grammatical in my dialect (in a descriptivist sort of understanding) to use “gonna” followed by a noun phrase. My initial response was that it probably wasn’t grammatical anywhere, but those sort of generalizations rarely play out.
To define the conversation more specifically, the issue here really revolves around the infinitive/preposition “to”. There is an additional discussion that involves “going” more directly that is demonstrated more easily with this example:
“I’m not going to work today.” [I am going to stay home instead]
“I’m not gonna work today.” [I’m just going to sit in my cubicle and play solitaire].
This tricky little linguistic phenomenon is well-documented, going back to the 1950s. In this case, it essentially comes down to differentiating between an aspectual [gonna], and the progressive verb [going to].
The phrase my friend used doesn’t show off the aspectual, so it can be difficult to see why exactly it is being blocked. After all, it may seem to most of us that ‘gonna’ is simply a contraction of ‘going to’. But, what we actually find, is that is not the case. ‘gonna’ is a contraction of a specific progressive verb + the nearby infinitive participle ‘to’.
If it isn’t clear, infinitives and prepositions can behave in very similar, and yet distinct ways. Oddly enough, we are aided by a prescriptivist perspective to help us understand the difference a little.
Infinitives like, “to go”, can be split. The most famous of split infinitives is the epic Star Trek line,
to boldy go…
In the olden days, prescriptivists would have you believe such iconic statements like this were ungrammatical in the English language (and that it should be, instead, “to go boldy” which, as has been noted by many, goes strangely against the natural tempo and stress of standard English).
On the other hand, splitting a preposition is a much more difficult task. For example in, “I’m going [p to [np the countryside]], trying to put something between the preposition and the attaching noun phrase is odd to say the very least.
I’m going to beautiful the countryside.
(I’m going to the beautiful countryside). Even adverbs, which are a very mobile word category in English, feel a little stretched. “I’m going to tomorrow the countryside.” (I’m going tomorrow to the countryside). It should be noted that while adverbs of time have a particularly difficult time here, other adverbs don’t: “I’m going to, hopefully, the countryside.” I think there is something semantically significant here, but I’m not entirely sure what it is.
Preposition can, however, be stranded with effortless ease. Particularly when asking questions (which is where lay prescriptivists are most likely to find offense). For example, using my friend’s statement, pretending I didn’t hear where she was going, I ask: “Where are you going to? (prescriptivists would submit that it should be, “To where are you going?” A construction, that while perfectly well-formed, fights a battle it lost long before it began.
Try out the infinitives now. We’ll use the “work” examples for clarity. Let’s say I didn’t understand what my friend said she was going to do today:
What are you not going to do today?
Not only can you not strand the infinitive, you actually need a place holder verb, (what we might call a pro-verb) ‘do’ in this case, to formulate a grammatical sentence.
Got that? Good. Both “going to” and “gonna” start with the same phonemes, namely, /goiŋ.tu/. In actual speech, my “going to + noun phrase” looks like this
You may not recognize or be able to read all the characters, that’s ok. Essentially, what I am saying with this transcription is that the first syllable is the stressed, that my “o” is not as far back as it is in words like “bode”. In fact, “goin”, when I am speaking quickly sounds somewhat like “gwen”. “to” is unstressed and so the “o” vowel gets reduced to “uh”.
Now for “going to + verb”
It looks a little strange like this, but essentially, what is being said is that “gonna” is pronounced in my speech as, “guh-nuh”. Why the different vowel characters? In most AmEnglish dialects, if “uh” is stressed, it tends to go down and back in the mouth, just a little bit. Another example is the word ‘someone’ [sʌmwən].
As for ‘gonna’ the most interesting thing, to me, is that the ‘-ng’ (of ‘going’) and the ‘t’ (of ‘to’) have merged into ‘n’. I won’t bore with the whole phonological explanation, but essentially, it is nothing strange for the nasal [ng] to spread to the [t] and make it an [n], or vice versa; for the [t] to influence the [ng] and make it [n]. But ‘gonna’ takes it a step further, and the nasality of [n] influences [t] and turns it into an [n]. The standard spelling of ‘gonna’ shows this pretty well. Gon-na.
But the question still stands, why should ‘to’ merge into ‘going’ in the cases of ‘going to +verb’ but not ‘going to + noun’? Our discussion of infinitives and prepositions comes in handy.
In the case of the prepositional ‘to’; notice that it is possible to say, “where are you going to?” or “where are you going?” but, importantly not:
where are you gonna?
The prep “to” holds enough information/importance that it cannot be fully reduced. Now, notice that if you add the verb ‘go’, ‘gonna’ works fine, “Where are you gonna go?” ‘to’ changes from a preposition to an infinitive and whatever informational importance it once had, is now gone and can be assimilated. In summary, prepositional ‘to’ holds enough importance in making sense of any utterance that it cannot be fully reduced without causing some confusion, at some level.
‘Gonna’, I think, also shows why the prescriptivist rule about not splitting infinitives is wrong in English. ‘gonna boldy go’ is fine, but
going boldy to go
sounds awful. For whatever reason, the infinitive ‘to’, which is linked traditionally more to the following verb (i.e. to go) and not the preceding one (i.e. going to [go]), seems to more easily assimilate with the preceding. It also has a much harder time being stranded from the preceding verb. In fact, the bond between ‘going’ and ‘to’ is such that they merge, yielding ‘gonna’.
The conclusions of all this, from my descriptivist perspective, are that maybe… just maybe it’s worth keeping those prescriptivist ideas around. While they may be preposterously stupid at times (splitting infinitives…) those very same ideas can help us test actual descriptive phenomenon. This descriptivist gives a tip of the hat to all you language mavens today.