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What ya gonna do?

Commenter Steegness wondered in a post Tuesday how The Sun’s policy of not changing the words in direct quotes meshes with the injunction to avoid phonetic spellings such as gonna except in limited circumstances. Does changing gonna to going to constitute “cleaning up” a quote for the speaker’s benefit?

The thing to keep in mind is that the newspaper presents articles of different kinds. What may be inappropriate in a straightforward news story, for example, may be permissible in the looser tone granted to a columnist. No one wants the editorial page, the features cover and the sports pages to sound exactly alike.

But throughout we are converting the spoken language to the written language, and the two do not coincide, as anyone who has grappled with the vagaries of English spelling recognizes. Spelling is a convention of written English that does not exist in spoken English, but we must use it when representing speech.

That gonna for going to has become so commonplace in both speech and writing as to get an entry in Webster’s New World College Dictionary — “phonetic sp. of going to (in informal pronunciation)" — leads us to permit it in the paper in certain contexts.

But we remain resistant to phonetic spellings in general, which can be (a) distracting to the reader and (b) insulting to the subject.

When Dudley Fitts translated the Lysistrata of Aristophanes, he gave the Spartan women Southern accents. Whether or not you think it was an apt choice, it is the kind of choice that fiction and drama offer to practitioners. I want to argue that while journalists may make use of literary techniques, journalism has more limits than fiction or drama. Ah doan think yew wahnt the payper to show how Suthrons tahk, for example.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (7)


Golly, that last sentence made me flash back to reading /Gone with the Wind/ so many years ago.

Didn't you just want to slap Margaret Mitchell for all the phonetic spellings in slave dialog? Yeah, yeah we GET IT Margaret.

Is "gonna" considered a phonetic variation of "going to" then?

While I see your point regarding Suthrons and their tahkin', "gonna" seems to have more life of its own, beyond being a simple dialectical slurring. There's no denying that it has a single 'high-english' translation, but so too do other words (the example that I can muster up at the moment is the verb form "beefing", in the generally urban sense of "engaged in conflict" -- I know of no other use of "beef" as a verb [though the imagination wanders]).

I know that the writing/editing is as much an art as it is following the rules, and I'm not picking a fight here or looking for a response. I'm just of the opinion that "gonna" has a bit more life to it than being the little hanger on of "going to".

When GWTW was released in Germany, my aunt (a Southern woman) was in Nurenberg teaching at a U.S. government school. She went to see the film, which was, naturlich, in German with English subtitles. The high point of the film came when Hattie McDaniel leaned out a window and said, in perfect Deutsch,"Fraulein Scarlett, Fraulein Scarlett, kommen Sie hier." (Note that she did not use the personal "du.") Anyway, what makes me want to thwack Margaret Mitchell is having to hear Scarlett breathe "Ashley, Ashley" every 10 pages or so. It's worse in the movie version, at least in English. How it sounds in German was not reported by my Aunt.

There are a few set phrases I wouldn't want to change, such as "wannabe" or "woulda, coulda, shoulda," but I agree with the principle that you quote the person's words accurately, and don't try to render the accent.

How a person sounds in print sometimes has more to do with the reporter's ears than the speaker's voice.

I read GWTW in French. The Southern dialect in translation is even funnier than it is in English.

These phrases are now very use to with the languages but we can't deny what you have shared here.

Writing/editing is as much an art as it is following the rules.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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