I’m on [verb]

The English language has no future tense. To refer to the future, we use various strategies with verbs in present tense (some of them auxiliaries):

I will run
I will be running
I shall run
I’m going to run
I am to run next
I’m running tomorrow
I run next Friday

Because we can conceptualise the future and it plays a big role in our lives, we talk about it often. Naturally, then, the ways we talk about it are subject to pressures of economy, resulting in contraction, e.g.:

I will run → I’ll run
I am going to run → I’m gonna/gon’ run
I’m gonna run → I’mna run → I’ma/Imma run

I’ll is acceptable in Standard English; gonna/gon’ and I’mna/I’ma/Imma are not, though you may see them in dialogue or informal writing or use some of them yourself in everyday speech – gonna is especially widespread.

Recently I came across another form: I’m on [verb]. It seems similar to I’ma and I’m gon’, but I don’t know exactly how or when it developed. Here’s the example I saw, in Elmore Leonard’s novel Mr. Paradise:

“You know who put the stuff on you?”

“Somebody close to me, his girlfriend’s punk-ass brother. Is how it goes. But listen, I’m on tell you something, I was scared.”

“I would be too,” Delsa said.

I’m on [verb] doesn’t appear to be common, at least in written English, though Google led me to this line from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: “Today I’m on tell you bout a man from outer space.” And in GloWbE I found: “Law have mercy. I reckon I’m on do it.” (from ‘Entrepreneurs are a first world Phenomenon’ by John Egan).

Based on the few examples I’ve seen, my guess is that I’m on [verb], like I’ma, is originally and still chiefly AAVE. But I’m open to correction, and to other thoughts you might have on it. I’m on wait and see now.

Edit:

I forgot that Mark Liberman looked at this on Language Log a couple of years ago: ‘Gonna, gone, onna, a — on?‘. He begins with a different example from Elmore Leonard (“I’m on get you to the hospital”, from Raylan), and links to an older post, ‘”on” time’, that deals with the same passage I quote above.

Both posts offer helpful analysis of the construction and its various pronunciations and spellings. Thanks to @f_moncomble for the reminder.

Update:

Elmore Leonard’s book Stick (1983) has another spelling:

Barry said, somewhat louder, “Well, Cece, it’s up to you. I’m going to ask you once more to leave quietly.”

“And I’m own ask you to bite this,” Cecil said…

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28 Responses to I’m on [verb]

  1. There a book called “Black English” that was a required reading in a college course I took (“African-American Literature”). It talks about the Creole and the Pidgins and dropped consonants–the history of the African-American language system. it’s a very accessible book, http://www.amazon.com/Black-English-J-L-Dillard/dp/0394718720

  2. Carluh Vicknair says:

    It’s from the Southern part of America. I say it, too.
    All races use it, here.

  3. laumerritt says:

    Makes me think of how French deals with the present continuous, they will say “Je suis en train de + [verb in infinitive]“.Je suis en train de would translate loosely into “I’m in the middle of” so “I’m walking” would be in French “Je suis en train de marcher”.

  4. Claire Stokes says:

    When I read the example, I feel like one interpretation is that it could be written this way: ‘I’m goin’ tell you something’, in which “goin'” is standing in for ‘going to’.. Seems to me that’s relatively common is spoken-word accounts, African American and otherwise. And then ‘on’ in place of ‘goin’ is just kind of .. being slidey about things.

  5. Ado Annie says:

    Another southerner here, Texas Gulf Coast sliding into Louisiana and we, collectively – not any particular group, use this word sound frequently. Sometimes, though, it comes out ‘I munna verb.’ (mun to rhyme with hon) “I munna drive to Houston, wanna go?” This crosses Hispanic, Southern White (with a Texan drawl or twang), Black, Cajon, etc. in this area of the coast. As Carluh says, :).

  6. It’s probably a result of consonantal elision, with the mg in ‘I’m gonna’ becoming ‘mm’.

  7. Mark Liberman posted about that example of I’m on from Elmore Leonard’s Mr. Paradise on Language Log back in 2005. Then in 2012 he posted about its use in Leonard’s Raylan and looked at a couple of examples where I’m on appears in transcribed blues lyrics by Robert Johnson.

  8. Stan says:

    Sonja: That looks great. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Carluh: I take it you mean the southern U.S. But is it more I’mana than I’m on, I wonder.

    Laura: As I understand it, je marche can mean either “I walk” or “I’m walking”.

    Claire: Sort of – the construction’s on is a reduced form of going to, via gonna. I like that phrase “being slidey”: it describes a lot of language change!

    Ado Annie: “I munna” presumably corresponds to I’mana, whereas I’m on drops the last vowel sound, so it’s a little different I think.

    Ian: Yes, that seems the case for most or all of these contracted forms.

    Ben: Thanks for those links. Someone else reminded me of Mark Liberman’s post via Twitter, so I updated. This post is a bit redundant in light of that coverage, but on the other hand my forgetfulness seems appropriate given the 2012 post…

  9. I wouldn’t have put it past Elmore Leonard to have invented it! A truly great writer. But the surprise for me in this post was the fact that we don’t actually have a proper future tense. Being under-educated, I’d never really thought about this. Great fun to learn from you, as always.

  10. It’s just lazy speech…

  11. laumerritt says:

    Loosely, “je marche” could be used both for “I walk” or “I’m walking”, for example. What are you doing (now)? I walk / I’m walking Qu’est-ce que tu fais (maintenant)? Je marche/ Je suis en train de marcher But if you want to be more specific, you have to use either depending on the situation, e.g. How do you go to school? I walk/Walking. Comment vas-tu à l’école? Je marche/ en marchant. .

    On the other hand “en train de” can be used in all tenses to make a continuous form. For example:

    I’m eating – Je suis en train de manger
    I was eating – J’étais en train de manger
    I’ll be eating – Je serais en train de manger
    I’d been eating – J’aurais était en train de manger
    I’m being eaten – Je suis en train de être mangé
    I’ve being eaten – J’étais en train de être mangé
    I’d being eaten – J’aurais été en train de être mangé

  12. Ado Annie says:

    “I’m on tell you one more time.”

    Very interesting the use of ‘on’ here. I can hear it in my mother’s crisp, finger-pointed-in-my-face, you-are-in-serious-trouble-NOW-girl voice, “I am ONLY going to tell you this ONE MORE TIME!”

    Also, speaking of the word ‘on’, I had always thought of the phrase, “I’ll get right on it,” to be climbing onto a project, but breaking it down could be, “I will go to do that right away,” another corruption of going to simply on. Or as we sometimes say in Texas, “I was just fixin’ to do that,” usually in answer to an authority figure wondering why it hadn’t been done yet. ;)

  13. Gerry Foley says:

    Gonna (or gunna) is pretty much standard here in Australia, from the Prime Minister down – but I don’t think Queen Elizabeth, our Head of State, would say it.

  14. Hi Stan. Great post. I have an observation that may display my ignorance of AAVE. To my ear, ‘I’m on’ lends itself easily to phrases where the verb begins with a t or, at a stretch, d. My hypothesis is that ‘I’m on tell you’ sounds a lot like ‘I’m going to tell you’ slurred or spoken real fast, thanks to the t in tell doing a kind of double duty by suggesting the presence of the omitted word ‘to’. Whereas ‘I’m on wait” – for example – lacking the plosive consonant, doesn’t.

    That’s my hypothesis anyway. Of course the only real test is how AAVE speakers actually talk. I’m willing to be proved completely, unutterably and humiliatingly wrong here.

    Ken Grace

    • Adrienne says:

      I’m not an AAVE speaker, just a speaker of Southern AmE, and “I’m on wait” sounds (and feels) just as good as “I’m on tell.” I don’t particularly like how it’s transcribed as ‘on’ though, since the vowel I use in the contraction is more rounded than the one I have in the word ‘on.’

  15. Mark F. says:

    The authoritative 1984 linguistic reference has the entry

    Ahmoan: An expression of intent. “Ahmoan have a little drink. You want one?”

    I think this pronunciation was more common thirty years ago than it is today, but it’s definitely not only an AAVE thing. I suspect that it’s what Leonard had in mind with “I’m on,” although if I just read it in my own accent his transcription sounds quite different.

    I suspect a lot of people don’t realize they’re actually saying “ommina” when they think they’re enunciating “I’m going to.”

    (BTW I’m kidding about the authoritative nature of How To Speak Southern.)

  16. Stan says:

    slipperywitch: He’s a terrific writer, all right. I don’t think he invented it, but he seems to be among only a few well-known authors to have used it. I remember the surprise I felt upon hearing the truth about the future tense in English. It would have made a great school discussion, but it never came up there.

    Gary: What Jesse said. The contractions we’re used to, such as it’s, we consider efficient – if we assess them at all. The new ones get all the flak.

    Laura: That’s very helpful, thank you.

    Ado Annie: To get right on something is an interesting spatial idiom. I like the expression fixing to [verb], though I rarely if ever hear it in the wild!

    Gerry: Thanks for the report from Australia. I haven’t looked into this, but I suspect gonna is used in all but the most formal registers.

    Ken: That’s a good question, and I have neither sufficient data nor the phonological expertise to answer it. Maybe if the phrase becomes more widespread it will begin to show up in corpora, and we can better analyse the constraints on it. In the meantime I recommend the posts at Language Log, linked in an update to this post.

    Mark: I like that version of it. Obviously one person’s “on” might be another person’s “oan”, and the phrase will vary subtly both in expression and perception. You’re probably right about “ommina”; people are more likely to imagine they sound more formal than less so.

  17. Charles Sullivan says:

    A muted hard ‘G’. I’m (g)on tell you something. Or it’s I’ma gon tell you something. Or ‘I’m a go on and tell you something.” ??

  18. […] been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense. Whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for […]

  19. davidly says:

    Due to the pronunciation I’m most accustomed to, I prefer to transcribe such utterances thus: I’m’on’ tell you somethin’.

    It’s not a space saver, but makes the point.

  20. davidly says:

    I just got auto-notified back to this post and something has occurred to me, which is another reason I like the contraction apostrophe.

    As has been mentioned already, the various utterances alluded to are common trans-racially in the southern US. But “I’m on” is not entirely accurate as a phonetic spelling – or at least not as common as the same, but with a nasalized clipping of the n.

    The variations on how of the pronunciation of the vowel can even make it end up sounding like the French word for “one” – at least the way many Wallonians pronounce it.

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