Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 9 News List

`Wanna, gonna': When to use elisions; when not to use `elision'

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Atop a column of mine about ethical concerns churned up by scientific advances in longevity, an International Herald Tribune editor ran this provocative headline: "Do you wanna live forever?"

The use of an elision to reflect the common pronunciation of a familiar phrase -- wanna for "want to" -- is surely attention-getting, which is what a headline should be. And if the aforesaid devil-may-care, fatalistic question from gangland movies entices my readers to come to grips with the moral fallout from age retardation, I'm not gonna complain.

Now, about gonna: "Hillary basically told me she wasn't gonna run," The New York Post quoted Howard Dean as saying in his interview with Dan Rather on CBS. His broadcast words were reported in The Post's pages along with "Iraq is gonna become a disaster under this presidency."

The Associated Press stylebook is seemingly unequivocal: "Do not routinely use abnormal spellings such as gonna in attempts to convey regional dialects or mispronunciations."

Norm Goldstein, the stylebook's editor, informs me: "I don't like it; we shouldn't ever use it. Ever. [With rare exceptions.]"

His stylebook's exceptions apply to feature writing: "Such spellings are appropriate when relevant or help to convey a desired touch in a feature."

The entry on dialect in The Wall Street Journal's stylebook advises writers to avoid using dialect in quoted matter "unless it is clearly pertinent to a story, because it can imply the speaker's usage is substandard or illiterate."

Its editor, Paul Martin, notes that, except for lighthearted features, the Journal discourages the use of phonetic spellings that are intended to represent the pronunciations of the speakers.

"But the elisions do creep into print, it seems," he tells me, "especially when we quote people like pop idols or laborers. We recently quoted rap star Jay-Z, for example, as saying he likes to sip his favorite cognac `whenever I wanna have a relaxing moment, usually with a cigar.' Using any such dialectical speech patterns in print, however, can be a slippery slope in class-consciousness."

The New York Times advises its writers to hesitate before using gonna, hadda, wanna because they strike some readers as patronizing.

"Usually the decision should be that word order and turns of phrase paint a clearer picture than eccentric spelling," reads The Times' stylebook. "A classic Times article captured the Lower East Side of Manhattan when it quoted an onlooker, spelling intact, about the inevitable hot dog vendor at a political campaign appearance: `Sure. For Rockefeller he gives discounts.'"

Some dictionaries give elisions (from the Latin elidere, "to strike out," which has come to mean "omission of a letter or sound") the status of informal contractions, or as the OED puts it, "representative colloquial pronunciation." Elisions may make it as words on their own: wannabe, the sliding sounds of "want to be," is now the popular substitute for the nominative form of hopeful, as in "presidential wannabe."

Writing in Business Week, William Donaldson, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, noted that he and New York's attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, were "not in the business of playing 'gotcha.'"

I confess to having referred to helpful people who write to correct me as the Gotcha! Gang (the elision based on "Got you!") when they gleefully catch me in error, or think they do.

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