College Essay Examples

An Analysis of Semi-Modal Verbs: gonna, gotta, wanna

An Analysis of Semi-Modal Verbs: gonna, gotta, wanna


The study of verbs and their modality in both written and common English is continuing to witness significant changes; especially regarding the three verbs “gonna”, “gotta” and “wanna”. The use of language, both oral and written, is subject to the changes in society and the dialects of the world, and in analyzing these three verbs there is the potential of tracking the evolution through grammaticalization. Based on the change in semantics, use of the auxiliary and operator properties, and the simplicity relative to speaking specifically, the extent and possible future implications of grammaticalization of these structures gotta, gonna and wanna will be analyzed.



Below is a table based off the frequency of the use of each of the three semi-modals from the Corpus of Historical American English. After looking at frequency worldwide, The United States and American English show the largest usage amount compared to around the globe for semi-modals (Corpora: Glowbe). The first column is all instances, followed by numbers from 1910-2010. Based solely on the numbers, there is a general increase in the frequency of usage of the semi-modals in question, with a slight leveling off in the previous decade and remaining without notable uptick in usage:


ALL 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
88207 9 119 3842 3353 5538 6963 12621 14328 12167 13623 15644



ALL 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
22391 62 186 1117 1097 1412 1847 3027 4108 3446 3464 2620



ALL 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
20664 5 41 924 815 1214 1977 3294 3447 3266 3245 2426


(*compiled from Corpora:Coha)


Based on this data, the argument can be made that there is not quite enough information o examine when it comes to making a conclusion about grammaticalization on frequency alone, without being able to interpret the dynamic uses of semi-modals when it comes to grammaticalization. In looking past frequency alone, grammaticalization of these verbs can be seen “also in tentative evidence (in the form of auxiliary ellipsis and nonstandard spellings) of phonetic coalescence and reduction, and tentative evidence of semantic generalization of certain semi-modals” (Leech, 2012).


In looking at examples used in a common sentence, it is apparent that there is a level of ease when using the first word in a semi-modal as an operator when words are used together to create a long string of connecting verbs. In looking at this trend specifically, there is evidence that grammaticalization is not simply based on frequency and the change in structure, but perhaps developments along the line that “Many researchers have argued that motivations or reasons for change lie in the fact that every speaker acquires a language, and that input to acquisition is variable” (Traugott, 2010)

2.2 Examples involving sentence structure of linked verbs:

We seem to be going to have to keep on driving in this direction.

This would naturally be reduced to We gotta keep driving in this direction.

-Are you going to come out with us later?

            You gonna come out with us later?

-Are you going to want to come out with us later?

            You wanna come out with us later?


The operator properties of gonna, gotta and wanna reveal the development in use of everyday language that can signal the possibility of demographics and dialectal changes in the future, but do not show operator properties. The colloquial use of these verbs are widespread in American English, and are not used generally independently of an auxiliary. “Gonna and gotta demonstrate a similar level of grammaticalization – they are used with the reduced auxiliary, but independent use is rare” (Machova, 1970). Wanna, also does not seem to show operator properties either, although it also has implications for future use in negative structures. Frankly, people commonly do not speak like this, and this change is evidence of grammaticalization through expansion that can be linked to demographics.

These examples hint at grammaticalization through expansion, referred to as semantic-pragmatic expansion as it “has been proposed instead that they are characteristic of grammaticalization in only certain domains of grammar: those that pertain to those parts of grammar that may be expressed inflectionally in languages with inflections, especially tense,

aspect, modality, case, number agreement, etc.” (Traugott, 2012).


2.3 Potential examples of reductions with inflection:

Can you? canya
Could you? couldja
Would you? woulja
Did you? didja
Do you? doya
Don’t you doncha
Will you? willya
Won’t you? wontcha

An Analysis of Semi-Modal Verbs: gonna, gotta, wanna


If one were to conduct a recording of an environment in which there were a lot of fast-paced conversations occurring at once, perhaps an American high school classroom, the theory is that the use of gonna, gotta, wanna would be high both in general and in relation to the full use of auxiliary plus verb (e.g. “gonna have to” vs. “going to have to”). Noting that this is spoken English as opposed to written, it would imply that the use of gonna, gotta and wanna regardless of pure contraction or use as a semi-modal will continue to be commonplace, and this may in turn affect the representation in written form in the future. As noted in the textbook:


It can be tentatively argued, then, that the competitive relation between core modals and             grammaticalizing semi-modals in spoken English is an explanatory factor in accounting   for the decline of the one and the ascendancy of the other in both spoken and written        English. The balance of gain and loss in the spoken language, it seems, has a knock-        on effect in the written language, even where that gain/loss equation does not (yet)        materialize in the written language. Perhaps colloquialization is bringing these    predominantly spoken forms into more extensive use in written English,    but only after   a time lag which has been keeping in check the full flood of increase observed in the spoken language” (Leech, 2012).


In following the logic of Figure 2.3, those forms are difficult and awkward to write, but easy to speak. This suggests that the spoken has and will continue to increase, but the gain/loss equation is still far from showing up in written language. Perhaps with more colloquial use and analysis of dialects around the United States, more conclusions may be drawn in the future.

Works Cited


Corpora: Coha. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Corpora: Glowbe. (n.d.). Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Leech, G. N. (2012). Change in contemporary English: A grammatical study. Cambridge University Press.

Machová, D. (1970, January 1). The degree of grammaticalization of gotta, gonna, wanna and better: A corpus study. CyberLeninka. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from

Traugott, E. C. (2010). Grammaticalization. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from


By Phillip Connoly

Phillip started his career working in small-town newspapers throughout central and western Canada before embarking on an online career. He writers blogs, branding content, white papers, business plans, resumes and cover letters.

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