by Diana Lizotte
April 2018

The word gonna is indelibly etched into my memory by a drill sergeant who used the word with the recruit standing next to me while we were training at a rifle range. While I can’t remember the exact conditions for the one-way exchange, it was likely that a drill sergeant, possibly Drill Sergeant Case, observed a recruit, possibly Cadet Howard, point his loaded rifle at a fellow recruit and not at the target. In a low, throaty growl, Drill Sergeant Case told Cadet Howard, “Keep that rifle down-range, or I’m gonna rip off your head, Howard.” I’m not sure if the growl or threat itself made more of an impression on me, but Drill Sergeant Case’s delivery of the threat/promise to rip off Howard’s head made me pay special attention to following all of Drill Sergeant Case’s instructions. This vignette exemplifies how drill sergeants use gonna both as a promise and a threat to form disciplined teams in which the drill sergeants are the Supreme Beings.

In a similar manner, several of my friends use gonna with their children. For example, Sandra told me, “I use it with my children when I let them know ‘I’m gonna whip that tail.’” Sandra uses gonna to encourage her kids to follow her instructions; it is both a promise and a threat of future action should they fail to comply. This use of the word “gonna” easily demonstrates the descriptive grammar rules governing the word and the conventions of its use.

Gonna is the “eye dialect” spelling, or the contraction, of the phrase going to.  Gonna is used to denote simple future tense when constructed with the modal verb Be + Going plus an infinitive verb. For example, “I’m gonna whip that tail,” is a phonetically shortened version of “I am going to whip that tail.”  Gonna is never used followed by a noun, only by a verb, so one never finds a construction like, “I’m gonna the tail.” Instead, one would say, “I’m going to the tail end of the line.” However, one might say, “I’m gonna tail that car,” because in this case the word tail has been converted to a verb.

Most dictionaries consider gonna to be used only informally and in speech. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary states that the etymology of gonna is “[r]epresenting a regional and colloquial pronunciation of going to (see go v.), with reduction of the unstressed vowel and assimilatory loss of the initial consonant of the second element.” Miriam Webster states that gonna is “used for ‘going to’ in informal speech and in representations of such speech.”

From an analysis of a corpus of spoken English compared to a corpus of academic text (see table 1), it is accurate that gonna is used predominantly in speech. In comparing a corpus of spoken English to a corpus of academic written text, gonna is used. 3,414 times more in the spoken word corpus than the academic corpus (see table 2).

Corpus/Text Content Size
Drill Sergeants.txt Excerpts from 8 movies in which Drill Sergeants use gonna (Biloxi Blues, Forest Gump, Full Metal Jacket, Glory, Jarhead, Officer and a Gentleman, and Stripes) 5762
SBCSAE.txt Spoken words from all over the United States 239000
SampleACAD.txt Academic .txt files from Sample 1000000

This makes sense because gonna is a phonetic expedient. For example there are three syllables in going to, but only two in gonna. Also, phonetically, there are seven phonemes, including five consonants, in going to: /goʊɪŋ tu/, which makes it phonetically more difficult to say than gonna, with only two consonants: /gɑnə/ (or as some say, /gʌnə/).

Corpus

Frequency of the word Frequency / corpus size
Drill Sergeants.txt 41 0.007115
SBCSAE.txt 816 0.003414
SampleACAD.txt 1 0.000001

Gonna is a dream-word for drill sergeants: its present progressive form can create a promise and a threat and it is used mostly informally and in speech. To test this, I compared a corpus of the speeches of the drill sergeants from eight drill sergeant movies, compared them to the two other corpora and explored concordance lines to see how the drill sergeants used the word (see Tables 1 and 2).  Gonna is used twice as much by drill sergeants than any of the speakers in the Santa Barbara corpus and over 7000 times more often than in the written, academic sample.

In the movie Stripes, when Bill Murray and Harold Ramis’s characters first arrive at Army Basic Training and meet their drill sergeant Hulka, Sergeant Hulka uses the word gonna eight times. Sergeant Hulka uses this contraction of going to to make promises and to threaten the new recruits to form a team and to instill discipline. For example, he uses the 1st person plural voice for inclusion and to promise that certain actions are going to occur in the future, “We’re gonna fall out with locker boxes and we’re gonna have a locker- box inspection. And then we’re gonna do five miles, rain or shine.” Like Sergeant Hulka, drill sergeants in the other movies use gonna in a similar fashion. For example, Sergeant Major Mulcahy from Glory states, “We’re gonna work on this day and night, Gentlemen!” The drill sergeants use gonna, usually in 1st person plural, to quickly form the recruits into military teams, by making promises about the physical labor they will do.

Sergeant Hulka also uses gonna to make threats, establishing his supremacy in the group hierarchy. For example, he states, “So you better hit them bunks, my little babies or Sergeant Hulka with the big toe is gonna see how far he can stick it up your ass.” Drill sergeants in all the movies use gonna to threaten recruits. This is evident by the infinitive verbs that the drill sergeants use with gonna, for example, “rip,” “stomp” and “hang.” Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket states, “I’m gonna rip off your balls […]” and the titular character in Major Payne states, “[I]f he don’t get across that rope, I’m gonna hang him with it!”

While drill sergeants’ comments may be shocking, they make recruits take notice. The word gonna often plays a significant role in establishing the drill sergeant as Supreme Being. As trainers and guardians of neophytes, drill sergeants use gonna as both a promise and a threat, thus instilling discipline to quickly form teams and indoctrinate recruits into the physical demands of military life. Gonna is well-suited for drill sergeants who use this informal, spoken form of (be) going to quickly form a cohesive unit with themselves at the top of the hierarchy and recruits following what they say…or else.

Works Cited

Anthony, Laurence. AntConc. Software/AntConc. Version 3. Laurence Anthony, 27 Nov. 2017. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.

Castle, Nick, Damon Wayans, and others. Major Payne. Ashland, VA: Universal Pictures, 1995. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.

Hackford, Taylor, Richard Gere, Debra Winger, Louis Gossett, Jr. An Officer and a Gentlemen. Tacoma, WA: Paramount Pictures, 1982. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.

Kubrick, Stanley, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford, Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Ermey, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard, Kevyn M. Howard, Ed O’Ross, Abigail Mead, Martin Hunter, and Gustav Hasford. Full Metal Jacket. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2001. <https://sfy.ru/?script=full_metal_jacket>. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Mendes, Sam, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx. Jarheads. Osbourne Park, CA: Universal Pictures, 2005.  Web. 27 Nov. 2017>.

Merriam-Webster. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gonna?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld>. Accessed 7 Dec. 2017.

OED. Oxford University Press. <http://www.oed.com.proxymu.wrlc.org/view/Entry/79914?redirectedFrom=gonna#eid>. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.

Reitman, Evan, Bill Murray, John Candy, Harold Ramis. Stripes. Kentucky, USA: Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1981. Web. 27 Nov. 2017. 

Simon, Neil, Mike Nichols, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken and others. Biloxi blues. Frog Bayou, AK: Rastar Pictures, 1988. <https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=biloxi-blues>. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

Zemeckis, Robert, Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and others. Forrest Gump. Monument Valley, AZ: Paramount, 1994. Web. 27 Nov. 2017.

Zwick, Edward, Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and others. Glory. Boston, MA: Tristar Pictures, 1989. Web. Accessed 27 Nov. 2017.

 

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