When does nothing = something?

In casual speech want to contracts to wanna. A sentence like (1) is more often pronounced like (2).

1) I want to visit Fred.

2) I wanna visit Fred.

We can see the same phenomenon in the sentences in (3) and (4):

3) Who do you want to visit?

4) Who do you wanna visit ?

However, no matter how casual your speech becomes, there are some cases where you can't substitute wanna for want to. In a sentence like (5), for example, want to cannot be contracted as in (6). (* is the symbol used by linguists to mark ungrammatical sentences.)

5) I want Jim to visit Fred.

6) * I wanna Jim visit Fred.

Here's a pretty obvious characterization of the ungrammaticality of (6):

7) Want and to can only contract to wanna if no words are between them.

Unfortunately, it's very easy to find a counter-example to (7). (9) is one, but start by looking at (8), the careful-speech version.

8) Who do you want to visit Fred?

9) * Who do you wanna visit Fred?

In (8), you are being asked who should be Fred's visitor. To put it another way, in (5) who questions the object of visit, while in (8) who questions the subject of visit. Here's a more graphic representation of the same point:

10) Who do you want to visit ___? (can have wanna)

11) Who do you want ___ to visit Fred? (can't have wanna)

In each case, the gap "___" shows where we interpret who. Now notice that in (11), the gap falls in between want and to, just as Jim does in (3).

What does it all mean?

(7) is basically correct as a description of the circumstances which allow wanna-contraction, but "words" are not the only thing that block it. As far as our language faculty is concerned, the gaps which question words like who link to are just as substantial as words like Jim, even though we don't pronounce them.

Something else to think about: no one taught you that you couldn't say (9). In fact, if anyone ever said anything about wanna to you at all it was to tell you not to use it, period. Nevertheless, you have the ability to make subtle judgements concerning its distribution. How did that happen.....

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