Wanna, gotta

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From Doonesbury 5/2/2021:

Linguists have paid a lot of attention over the years to  wanna-contraction, starting with George Lakoff's 1970 paper "Global rules" — see these lecture notes for a discussion, if you're interested. But gotta-contraction has gotten a lot less attention — 7 Google scholar hits vs. 658.

The reason for this difference is simple: "want to" is occurs in different structures that have different contraction frequencies, thus entangling syntax, morphology and phonology in a pattern that people have been trying since 1970 to figure out how to untangle. "Got to" seems to occur in the same structures, but these turn out to involve quite different senses of get, which maybe even should be considered different words.

From Lakoff 1970:

Larry Horn has pointed out (personal communication) the following minimal pair:

(20) a. Teddy is the man I want to succeed.
         b. Teddy is the man I wanna succeed.

Here 20a is ambiguous, and can be understood as either of the following:

(21) a. I want Teddy to succeed.
        b. I want to succeed Teddy.

But 20b can only be understood in the sense of 21b, since want to cannot contract to wanna if there is an intervening NP between want and to at an earlier point in the derivation, as there is in 21a.

Since 1970, it's become clear that neither the facts nor the explanations are as clear as we might like. But this morning's topic is "got to", which can occur in similarly ambiguous sentences, e.g. "Teddy is the man I got to succeed."

In this case, however, we're dealing with three quite different meanings of "got".

The first meaning is the OED's sense 28a of get:

transitive. With to-infinitive (also formerly bare infinitive or with for to): to induce, prevail upon, or compel (a person) or to succeed in causing (a thing) to do something. Also (in weakened sense): to cause or set (a person) to do something for one.

In this sense, we mean that "Teddy is the man that I caused __ to succeed" (with __ indicating Teddy's place in the relative clause), i.e. I caused Teddy to succeed. Let's call this the cause sense.

The second one is the OED's sense 28b of get:

intransitive. With to-infinitive: to come (to be or do something); to secure an opportunity, manage, or be permitted (to be or do something).

In this sense, we would mean something like "Teddy is the man that I secured an opportunity to succeed __", i.e. I managed to succeed Teddy. Let's call this the secure an opportunity sense.

And the OED splits the third relevant meaning off into a final section under the heading "IV. Specialized uses of the perfect":

In this use, the perfect and past perfect of get (have got, has got, had got) function as a present and past tense verb, which, owing to its formation, does not enter into further compound forms (perfect and past perfect, progressive, passive, or periphrastic expressions with to do), or have an imperative or infinitive.

In colloquial, regional, and nonstandard use, omission of auxiliary have is frequent in the uses at this branch (e.g. I got some, you got to): see examples in etymology section.

And among those "specialized uses of the perfect is sense 34:

To be under a necessity or obligation to do something; = have v. 42.

Let's call this the obligation sense — it's what Zonker meant by "Gotta". And the linguistically interesting thing is that it's only this obligation sense that can contract to "gotta".

"Contraction" here means that "got to" becomes something like [ˈgɐɾə], where the final /t/ of "got" and the initial /t/ of "to" merge into a voiced tap, which may further weaken into an approximant with a bit of glottalization , as in this clip from NPR Morning Edition 8/4/2015:

They said no,
we're breaking this base into
units, if you will. And
they said that you got to take 82 housing units.

Zeroing on the gotta phrase:

they said that you got to take 82 housing units

In contrast, compare this clip from Talk of the Nation 9/14/2012, involving the secure an opportunity sense, where "to" is definitely reduced, but the /t#t/ sequence is realized with a 100-ms silent closure and a 47-ms aspirated release:

Exactly. And- and
the nice thing with the study
was that we got to find out what was characteristic of healthy sinus

My own intuition, FWIW, is that I couldn't contract "got to" to "gotta" in examples of this type.

Surveying a random sample of "got to" examples from a large corpus of NPR podcasts, I found that nearly all of the obligation-sense examples contracted, and none of the others did. I think that there are some implications here for the wanna-contraction discussion, but that's a topic for another time.

I'll just close here by observing that the OED is apparently wrong to assert that the obligation sense "does not enter into … periphrastic expressions with to do" — thus

And the obligatory sample of past LLOG posts on semi-modals:

"I'ma", 7/3/2005
"Wanna: Neither slang nor language murder", 11/14/2006
"What Palin's gonna do", 9/26/2008
"I'm a?", 9/19/2009
"I'ma stay with the youngsters", 5/14/2010
"The history of 'gonna'", 9/10/2010
"Ask Language Log: Writing 'gonna' or "going to'", 6/25/2011


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 10:08 am

    CambridgeGEL, page 1616 reads

    In some varieties, especially in AmE, the initial to of an infinitival catenative complement may, in informal speech, be morphologically incorporated into the preceding head word. This is found with the seven items listed in [9 ]; it is often shown in very informal styles of writing (typically the written representation of casual speech) by non-standard spellings:

    [9 ] i going + to / gənə / She’s gonna fall.
    ii got + to / gɒtə/ You’ve gotta help me.
    iii have + to / hæftə/ We’ll hafta give it away.
    iv ought + to / ɔ tə/ You oughta tell them the truth.
    v supposed + to /səpoυstə/ He’s supposta be at work.
    vi used + to / ju stə/ I usta like her.
    vii want + to / wɒnə/ They wanna get a new car.

    This phenomenon is to be distinguished from the regular phonological reduction of to (infinitival marker or preposition) to the weak form /tə/, as in: [10 ] a. Ihopeto see her. /hoυp tə/ b.They drove to Paris. /droυv tə/ The most significant difference is that the forms in [9 ] can be stranded, whereas the reduction to a weak form illustrated in [10 ] does not take place in this kind of context (cf. [5 i] above).

    Compare, then: [11 ] ia. % He doesn’t want me to tell her but I’m gonna . % b. I asked them to help but they don’t wanna . ii a. I’mnotsureI’llseeher,butIhopeto . [/hoυp tu /, /not ∗/hoυp tə/] b. That’s not the place they drove to . [/droυv tu /, not ∗/droυv tə/] In this respect the case is similar to that of negative forms like can’t or isn’t ( § 5 .5 ), and we again regard it therefore as a matter of morphology, not mere phonological reduction. But it is much less systematic than the negative case, applying to just seven words which do not in other respects belong together as a class; it thus falls within the sphere of lexical morphology, not inflection. This is to say that the forms in [9 ] are morphological compounds. And because the infinitival marker has been incorporated into the compound the catenative complement is a bare infinitival, not a to-infinitival. For the same reason they can only enter into the simple catenative construction, not the complex one. The ordinary verb want can enter into either: They want to get a new car (simple) or They want me to get a new car (complex). There is naturally no compounded counterpart of the latter example because want and to are not adjacent. But even when the object NP is fronted so that the to does immediately follow want, the compound is still excluded.

    Compare, then: % [12 ] ia. Who do you want to invite ? % b. Who do you wanna invite ? ii a. Who do you want to win? b. ∗Who do you wanna win?

    [ia] who is object of invite, whereas in [iia] it is object of want. Example [ia] thus belongs to the simple catenative construction (like I want to invite Kim) and hence allows incorporation of to, as in [ib]; [iia] belongs to the complex construction (like I want Kim to win) and hence has no counterpart with wanna, for the compound verb licenses only a single complement, a subjectless bare infinitival (A minority of speakers appear to allow the pronunciation /wɒnə/ in [12 iib], but we would regard that not as a case of morphological compounding but a matter of phonological reduction. The complex catenative construction provides no evidence for a morphological explanation of the kind illustrated in [11 ].)

    Two of the seven compounds display the inflectional contrast shown in: [13 ] 3rd sg present plain present or plain form i hafta /hæstə/ /hæftə/ ii wanna /wɒnstə/ /wɒnə/ The inflectional marking of the 3 rd sg present form is on the head element, the verb base, just as in plural compounds like passers-by it is on the noun base. In contexts requiring some other inflectional form, only the ordinary, non-compounded construction is available: They had to leave; We’re having to sell it.

    Note that in ellipsis these behave like [11 ii], not [11 i], so that in We asked them not to leave but they had to, for example, we have /hæd tu /, not ∗/hædə/. In addition, /ju stə/ can be either a preterite form (I usta like it) or a plain form (I didn’t usta like it), the syncretism here reflecting the homonymy in the non-compounded Iusedto like it and Ididn’tusetolike it. The/gɒtə/of[9 ii] is a past participle form governed by perfect have; the latter is often omitted, however, leading to the reanalysis of /gɒtə/ as an invariant present tense form. The /ɔ tə/ of [iv] is an invariant present tense form or a non-standard plain form used in the negative with supportive do ( !He didn’t oughta). Also invariant are /gənə/ and /səpoυstə/, the former being part of an idiom headed by progressive be, the latter a participial adjective likewise found only after be (cf. Ch. 16 , § 10 .1 .3 )

    [(myl) A complete review can be found in Goodall's 2017 chapter on "Contraction", cited/discussed/linked in the lecture notes referenced in the post above. The point of the post is the difference in contractability between the obligation sense of "got to" and the other senses.]

  2. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 10:29 am


    gotta (ˈgɒtə): a representation of the colloq. or vulgar pronunciation of (have) got a or (have) got to (see get v. 24, https://oed.com/oed2/00094176).

    [(myl) The case of "got a" is not relevant here, since flapping and voicing of word-final /t/ before a following vowel-initial word is ubiquitous in most varieties of American English. The reduction of /nt#t/ to a nasal tap (as in "want to") or of /t#t/ to a voiced tap (as in "got to") is what's under discussion. ]

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 1:24 pm

    "ubiquitous" in all topolects and idiolects, Mark, or only in some ?

    [(myl) OK, inserted "in most varieties of American English".]

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    Earlier this year I was relistening to a buncha records from 1981 to see how they sounded at age 40, including Joe Ely's admirably-titled album "Musta Notta Gotta Lotta." To be fair that's the other "gotta" in the OED which is "not relevant here" per the note above, but it makes me wonder if as with noun piles there's some sort of competition as to how many contractions can be stacked up in a row.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 2:20 pm

    Is a fair test or rephrasing of this claim that "got to" can contract to "gotta" iff "have to" (or the contraction "hafta") could be substituted for it without any real change of meaning?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 5:42 am

    I cannot answer your question, Mr Brewer, but I can state with some confidence that "got to" not only can be, but regularly is, contracted to /ˈɡɒʔ ə/ by speakers of (e.g.,) the South/East London topolects. John Wells writes in the LPD

    gotta ˈɡɒt ə ǁ ˈɡɑːt̬ ə —Although this spelling is nonstandard, particularly in British English, the pronunciation given is quite usual not only in General American but also in informal Received Pronunciation for got to (‘must’) before a word beginning with a consonant sound. Before a vowel, the corresponding pronunciation is usually ˈɡɒt u ǁ ˈɡɑːt̬ ə — see discussion at to

  7. John Lawler said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    Note that the gotta-contractable sense of get/got here is, not accidentally, synonymous with the hafta-contractable sense of _have_. Both constructions are periphrastic modals, and it's that modalization that's driving the contraction.

  8. JPL said,

    May 15, 2021 @ 11:08 pm

    John is on the right track, I think, in his comment above. The Goodall article has a list of periphrastic verbal expressions that involve what seems to be called "clause reduction" (i.e., are analysed as single clauses instead of what appears to be two), that involve "V + to", and that are subject to phonological reduction. The list includes the periphrastic modal expressions, including 'have to'/"hafta" and 'have got to'/"gotta"; and I would prefer to include also 'going to'/"gonna" with the modal expressions (rather than with aspect). "Gotta" also has an epistemic sense: e.g., "Given these calculations, the answer's gotta be 7."

    The grammarians and (morpho-)syntacticians can provide the proper terminology and notations, but it seems that when the sentence structure has something like (to include only the relevant formal (in the sense of perceivable shapes) elements) "finite verb + to + non-finite verb", if we include consideration of the periphrastic modal expressions (and the others), a potential ambiguity of the expression is introduced. If we look at the structure of the meaning expressed (let's call it the "proposition"), as opposed to the structure of the sentence that expresses it, there seem to be two distinct possible meanings that can be expressed by the one expression: 1) a "usual" case having to do with the basic divisions of clause structure, specifically involving the relation between the main verb and its complement, where this is a clausal structure as opposed to a nominal phrase, such as a direct object or oblique object. And 2) a "strange" case, involving a closer relation between the two verbal meanings that is more typical of the functional (or "inflectional") modification of verbal meaning found in the case of aspect, modality or tense, and that is typically expressed by inflectional affixes or stem modification, so that the second verb in the expression indicates the main verbal element in the proposition structure. (This is the "clause reduction" phenomenon from the Goodall article.) The auxiliary verb expression system seems to be an active site for phonological reduction and contraction, probably consistent with historical tendencies for the development of affixation.

    The propositional structure for "gotta" in the modal sense seems to be more like type (2), and more like the corresponding relation in the case of modal auxiliary verbs, than the type (1) infinitival complement constructions. So, what seems to make the difference for the possibility of contraction is not the specific content of the verbal elements of the proposition, but the formal (in the sense of logical form) relations of clause structure vs. verbal "inflectional" (or "functional") modification of the verbal meaning.

    Can the "wanna" case be understood by applying this distinction? Possibly, but it would lead to some weird questions arising. E.g., are the propositions expressed by (a) and (b) equivalent in all respects, or is there a potential contrast in terms of the above distinctions?
    a) I want to succeed Sam.
    b) I wanna succeed Sam.
    Is (a) ambiguous?

    (Sorry for the length of the comment; I tried to be as concise as possible.)

  9. JPL said,

    May 19, 2021 @ 3:32 am

    I hadn't read Antonio Banderas's comment quoting the CGEL (because of Mark's comment that that was not the intended focus of the present post), but now I have, and so I just wanted to relate it to what I said above. In the CGEL list, as with Goodall's, the odd ones out for a category of periphrastic modal expressions and for the category of modality in general seem to me to be only "sposta" and "wanna". Oddly, perhaps, I also think 'used to/"usta" belongs with the modal inflectional system. And I still think that the basic phenomenon that is the initial condition in the dependency pathway belongs to the place in the structure of the proposition that is relevant for expression by inflectional morphology, with the morphological compounding of the lexical item being a result of that (although some reciprocity is possible). This is what I took to be the insight in John Lawler's comment above. I'm sure nobody wants to know why I think such things, but I could give it a shot if needed, although it would be too much for a blog comment. These items could all be part of a historical process of reanalysis.

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