Contractions don’t impede clarity: The word “don’t” in the preceding phrase is clearly a combination of “do” and “not.” Everyone reading this understands that. Avoiding contractions in formal language is more a stylistic rule than a necessary one. Why, then, shouldn’t we let contractions play in casual speech, which we engage in much more, using language intuitively, comfortable in the persuasiveness of our informality? Indeed, I hear the school’s teachers speaking casually from time to time, and I can attest that they routinely say “gonna” and “wanna” — as they should!
I suggested to my daughter that she reconsider following this particular advice given by her teachers, at least when she isn’t around them. But I also recognize that the fact that she learned the lesson so well may be evidence of just how effective her teachers are. Before she and I talked about it, I hadn’t heard a “gonna” or “wanna” from her in months. Perhaps being the child of a persnickety dad who crosses his ankles when he sits in an armchair had something to do with her receptivity to the idea? We may never know, but I’m worried that other kids might sense it as an affectation, a kind of precocious fuddy-duddyism. I want her to speak well, of course, but to be able to do that both formally and informally.
And in a way, speaking casually but without contractions is a way of not speaking well. I think of a scene from the latest season of HBO’s wonderful “Barry.” In the fifth episode, a character insists on taking over a grim task in a pressure-packed situation and says, with increasing urgency, “And I’m gonna do it … I’m doing it. Do you hear me? I’m gonna do it!” It would have been tone-deaf if this character had used “going to” rather than “gonna” and said, “And I’m going to do it … “I’m going to do it!” In casual speech, what’s “proper” in such an instance is “gonna.”
After we talked about this issue, my daughter wryly said to me and her sister, “My dad is teaching me not to speak well!” Ah, the plight of the linguist parent. I have no doubt that she’ll grow up able to speak “well,” but part of speaking well is being able to speak right. I wanna make sure she can.
Have feedback? Send me a note at McWhorterfirstname.lastname@example.org.
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”