‘Gonna’ versus ‘going to’: A battle over clean quotes

“I can’t take it any longer,” the reader wrote in an email I received last November. “I take issue with your constant misuse of your term ‘gonna’ when quoting people in your stories in the Sun Current.”
I had gone the previous five years at the paper writing that way. When someone said “gonna,” I printed “gonna.” No big deal, I thought. Everyone says “gonna.” It’s a regular part of spoken English and it should be reflected in the public record, I thought. But the writer wasn’t concerned with that sort of posterity.
“Where did you ever learn this practice, the school of millennial journalism???” the indictment continued. “This continual abuse of the English language makes you, your newspaper, and the person being interviewed look very bad. I cringe every time I read one of your stories. Get it right man, finally, please.”
I got another complaint, as I finished a phone interview with a local policymaker, that “gonna” makes people sound stupid.
I filed these grievances away and kept to my ways. It was only two complaints, after all, not a groundswell of protest.
About a month and a half ago, though, I changed my mind. Now, when people say “gonna,” I print “going to,” with possible exceptions forthcoming for certain stories that rely on capturing personality through speech.
My reformed ways aren’t because of the letter writer’s incorrect insistence that 75 percent of the interviewees I quoted as saying “gonna” were actually saying “going to.” And it wasn’t due to the complaint that using “gonna” makes people sound stupid – I don’t think it does.
I changed my ways for the sake of simplicity, but also for the principle of egalitarianism, the theme of our upcoming national holiday. I made my decision to ditch “gonna” before I found the following guidance from the influential Poynter Institute, but the tip is worth noting. “Because of language prejudice on race and class, be careful with slang and dialect,” Senior Scholar Roy Peter Clark wrote.
This is where trying to accurately reflect the world gets messy. Writers clean up quotes all the time. We eliminate the “ums” and “ahhs” and some of the hemming and hawing. We buff out spoken grammatical errors. But, perhaps due to its universality, I had held onto “gonna.”
My thought was that this was a public record that I must faithfully uphold. I used to take pleasure in reading through the 75-year-old newspapers archived in the back room of my former employer. These documents were the only view I had into a very particular slice of time and place.
I reasoned that the pages you’re reading will serve a similar utility. Journalists owe it to historians in the future to accurately reflect how people talk, I thought.
However, social media has taken on that burden. Thanks to our digitally preserved daily musings, archivists will have a bottomless well of data to explore when they study  21st Century speech patterns.
When quoting people, reporters must strike a balance between clarity and the faithful recreation of the speaker’s words. People mumble, drop syllables and tie words together all the time. Where do we, as documenters of reality, draw the line? Maybe that line does fall on “gonna.”
Or, maybe the colloquialism will be proven a fad from the “millennial school of journalism.” But since language is fluid and since usage of the term doesn’t seem age-specific, my guess is that “gonna” will eventually be canonized as an official word.
The term will probably be deemed suitable for polite publication and delicate sensibilities, but I’ll let someone else draw that line.
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.