Monday, 7 February 2011


The sociolinguists have demonstrated that most native speakers of English fluctuate between two forms of the -ing ending: the ‘high’ variant ɪŋ, with a velar nasal, and the ‘low’ variant ɪn, ən, with an alveolar nasal.

The difference is stylistic, with the H variant being used in formal situations and the L in informal/colloquial situations. Just where the line is drawn between the two possibilities varies, depending on social class and other factors.

Using the L variant is popularly known as “dropping one’s g’s”, although in surface phonetics it is a matter of place of articulation rather than of omitting something. It is of course shown in writing by the use of an apostrophe, putting -in’ in place of -ing. (The tattoo in my picture omits the apostrophe.)

The L variant also has the subvariant of a syllabic , used particularly after t (→ ʔ) and d. Both ɪn and are obviously also subject to possible dealveolar assimilation, producing forms with m and (!) ŋ.

So for running we can have H ˈrʌnɪŋ or L ˈrʌnɪn, ˈrʌnən. For putting we have H ˈpʊtɪŋ and L ˈpʊtɪn, ˈpʊtn̩, ˈpʊʔn̩. Because of possible assimilation, if we are faced with ˈrʌnɪŋ ˈkwɪkli or ˈteɪkŋ̩ ˈpleɪs we cannot tell which of H and L is involved.

However at the top of the social scale there is a smallish group of speakers who use H (velar) under virtually all circumstances. At the bottom there is a rather larger group who virtually always use L (alveolar).

Personally I have to admit membership of the first group. I don’t believe I ever use the L variant except for jocular or other special effect.

The lyrics of popular music often mandate the L variant. I find it difficult to remember to do this as required when singing.

I remember when BBC English assigned me a producer (many years ago) who used the L variant extremely frequently. I was shocked at my own gut reaction, which was that he must be ignorant and uneducated to the extent that I found it difficult to take his opinions seriously.

Because it is so socially sensitive, this variable also generates hypercorrections. In Accents of English (p. 263) I mentioned as examples of this a braz[ɪŋ] (brazen) hussy and Badmi[ŋ]ton. The other day I heard a nice one from a railway station announcer: Harpenden pronounced as ˈhɑːpɪŋdən.


  1. Are there any regional accents left where the old functional differentiation is still working, between gerund and participle?

    (EDIT: word verificaton: "meding".)

  2. Isn't the assimilated form of ˈteɪkŋ̩ ˈpleɪs actually ˈteɪkm̩ ˈpleɪs?

  3. teardrop: yes, it's possible (though ˈteɪkɪm ˈpleɪs is more plausible); but it doesn't illustrate my point. Progressive assimilation (ˈteɪkŋ̩), which sort of does, is pretty widespread for the L variant, at least in BrE.

  4. I've noticed that (some) US presidential candidates employ "-g dropping" when they're on the campaign trail, addressing workers in factories etc. I haven't noticed this from UK politicians.

  5. The song title is usually spelled Runnin' Wild. Even when spelled Running Wild the singer uses n. An exception is the version by the Temperance Seven, where RP in general and ˈrʌnɪŋ in particular create an amusing clash of style.

    One of the exhibits in the Evolving English exhibition includes a track of pop-singer Sophie Ellis Baxter singing in what is perceived by some to be an inappropriate RP accent. I can't remember for sure whether this includes an ɪŋ or two. I rather suspect it does.

  6. There are some words that always take the H variant because they might be ambiguous if said with the L variant. If "thing" were to be said with the L, it would become a homophone of "thin".

    I recall John Wells's telling me once before on this blog how the usual RP transcription of "Doncaster" takes ŋ rather than n. That surprised me. Is there any rule why RP speakers use ŋ here? If you were to take someone without ng-coalescene, I can't imagine their saying it as [ˈdɒŋgkæstə] so it does not seem to be the same phoneme in all accents.

    (I went on Wikipedia to check its IPA transcription for "Doncaster" and found a reference linking to the blog post where I had aforementioned exchange with John Wells)

  7. Then of course there are those of us with an [ɪŋg] form, to whom the rest of you really are "g droppers".

    @Ed: I'd have thought that the absence of an [n] variant of "thing" was more to do with it being a stressed monosyllable than ambiguity.

    Re Doncaster, as a South Yorkshire native with variable ng-coalescence (but generally with a mild or "near RP"-type accent) I agree with JW on [ŋ] (but the second vowel is [a]).

  8. @ JHJ: Actually, going back and looking at the reference, JW said that he uses [ə] for the second vowel, but said that [a] is the Northern (thus local) form for the second vowel.

    Those without ng-coalescence must still have [ŋ] rather than [ŋg] in a few other [ŋk] words, such as "think" and "blink". Perhaps this is why you have it in "Doncaster", which also has a [k] following.

  9. John, do you use forms like ˈgɒnə or ˈgəɪnə for "going to"? If not, something like ˈgəŋtə?

  10. I think we've set off down a blind alley.
    1. In this post I was not discussing words that just happen to end in -ing (king, string, wing, thing), but those that contain the verbal suffix -ing. A few other words are affected (ceiling, morning, evening...) which have weak -ing. Compounds such as "shoestring" are not affected. The -thing compounds (something, anything, nothing, everything) are special cases.
    2. Yes, people from the north of England who retain [g] in "sing, hang" also retain it in their H variant of -ing ɪŋɡ. For them, calling the use of the L variant "g dropping" makes more sense than it does for the rest of us.
    3. No one uses ŋɡ rather than ŋ before k in "think, rank, donkey" etc. For the northerners in question, the relevant allophonic rule says n → ŋ BEFORE A VELAR, not just before g.

  11. Lipman - My usual preconsonantal weak form of "going to" is ɡənə, or sometimes ɡəntə. Prevocalically, ɡən(t)u. Similarly, "trying to" has a reduced form ˈtraːn(t)ə, ˈtraːn(t)u. See LPD. I don't think of these as involving "-ing"!

  12. But some compounds in -thing are affected too. In Northern Ireland, for example, nothing is pronounced /'nʌhɪn/. (In NI word-initial /θ/ becomes /h/ in many words.)

    I'm sure I've heard /'sʊmθɪn/ and /'nʊθɪn/ in Lancashire as well, used by speakers using Standard English something and nothing as alternatives to the dialect forms summat and nowt.

    Clearly these pronunciations are unrelated to the ancient gerund/participle confusion that affects runnin'. Presumably the L pronunciation has been extended by analogy in these cases

  13. Pete, as I said, the -thing compounds are special cases.

  14. Some varieties of AmE have /ŋɡ/ too. The expression "proud to be a Long Islander" (referring to the island east of Manhattan) is pronounced with /ŋɡ/, reflecting the local pronunciation of the island's name.

  15. "The tattoo in my picture" OR "my tattoo in the picture"?

  16. There are many people who extend [ɪn] to all unstressed /ɪŋ/ endings, provided you can make the circular argument that words with unassimilated [ɪŋ] ipso facto have secondary stress. I find e.g. darlin' more plausible than ducklin', perhaps because the diminutive "-ling" is more transparent in the latter.

    I find some "Washin'ton" on Google books, as a perhaps inaccurate representation of illiterate speech. Why is dental→alveolar assimilation so much rarer than alveolar→dental?

  17. My favourite hypercorrection of this type came from our neighbour when mentioning that her daughter was taking "driving lessings".

    On the subject of knowing when it's socially appropriate to use the L form ( pop songs etc) , I often wonder when the famous "dandy" habit of dropping g's went out of fashion. Bertie Wooster seems to have given it up, for example, by the time of "Thank You, Jeeves" in 1934.

  18. I've found that the L variant among GenAm speakers is a bit similar to rhoticity in the New York City dialect: what seems like random variation is actually guided by certain pscyholinguistic "rules." I tend to use "-in" in humorous contexts or to indicate a kind of intimacy with who I'm talking with.

  19. @mollymooly:

    I presume you mean "velar -> alveolar", not "dental -> alveolar".

    Allow me to hazard a wild guess. The /n/ - /ŋ/ distinction bears little functional load in unstressed syllables in English. Because /n/ is so much more common than /ŋ/, people tend to replace /ŋ/ with /n/ where there is no conditioning factor, such as a following velar stop, to compel /ŋ/. If this explanation is valid then we ought to see replacement of word-final /m/ by /n/ as well, but I can't think of an example offhand.

    No doubt there are diachronic explanations as well.

    In unrelated news: the OED's free trial has now ended, my local library doesn't seem to have a subscription, and I don't think I can justify spending $295 a year on it. Grrrrrr :(

  20. Living in northern Utah I often have to bite my tongue at the unusual pronunciations I hear.

    The H variant always has the final 'g' of '-ing' fully pronounced (even with an audible aspirated release); in fact, there is no audible difference between the 'ng' of 'singer' and that of 'finger'.

    When combined with the local tendency to completely devoice all word-final obstruents, words such as 'sing' and 'sink' become homophones [sɪŋkʰ] and [sɪŋkʰ]. The distinction is preserved only in derived forms: 'singing' [sɪŋgɪŋkʰ] and 'sinking' [sɪŋkɪŋkʰ].

    On a related note, I once had a student hypercorrect ancient to [eɪŋkʃɪnʔ].

  21. @ Andrew: I've heard interesting pronunciations of ancient too.

  22. @Phil:

    If you got in a time machine you would also hear some pretty interesting pronunciations of "ancient" :)






  23. I love how the /ɪŋ/ sound is pretty clear in this song:

  24. @ vp: Yes, I think heard the last one of those pronunciations from a guy speaking Middle English in this documentary on the English language that I watched recently. This is off topic though.

  25. JW says:

    Because of possible assimilation, if we are faced with ˈrʌnɪŋ ˈkwɪkli or ˈteɪkŋ̩ ˈpleɪs we cannot tell which of H and L is involved.

    I have /ŋɡ/ (I'm from Manchester), and my introspection tells me there's a (very small) length distinction in the /ŋ/ that differentiates H and L here. Does that seem plausible?

  26. (Re my last comment - it only applies to /ˈrʌnɪŋ ˈkwɪkli/ btw)

  27. vp,

    I'm not sure about ˈaunsjənt. Isn't the au simply a: or ɒ: even in ME?

  28. "heard" ---> "I heard"

  29. I have noticed recently that the final "g" in present participles, far from being dropped in colloquial speech, has turned into a very explicit "k", especially at the end of a sentence. This seems to be confined to the north of England and the examples I am thinking of come from Cheshire.

  30. @tudorhgh: I think that is Midland rather than Northern. (I don't want to offend anyone from Cheshire who considers themselves Northern, but I've heard it in places like Birmingham, Nottingham, Lincoln - never anywhere north of Cheshire). I think that Joan Beal classified it as a hypercorrection.

  31. @vp: I presume you mean "velar -> alveolar", not "dental -> alveolar".
    Yes, and conversely "alveolar -> velar ", not "alveolar -> dental". Thanks.

  32. @Lipman:

    I'm not sure about ˈaunsjənt. Isn't the au simply a: or ɒ: even in ME?

    No, at least according to Dobson, English Pronunciation 1500-1700, vol. ii 603. He notes that in this word that "sixteenth century orthoepists ... generally record ME au, but ME ā becomes more common than ME au in the seventeenth century."

  33. This probably explains instances where people write verb+ing when they intend "verb in", e.g. driving for drive in.

  34. 1. ''Huntin' and fishin' '' can be H too, it was used by English aristocrats not so long ago:

    2. There is also a form in which G is pronounced as [g], typical of some Northern English accents.

  35. "Huntin', shootin' and fishin'" as a fixed quote aside, I don't think the -n forms can be H among English aristocrats, and if so, only among the youngest who also have glottal stops for older ts. The Galsworthy quote is from 1931 and talks about the old school days of an aunt, and even back then it was regarded a rarity.

  36. I'm surprised that no one has contributed the killer quote for the "huntin', shootin' and fishin'" phenomenon – the one attributed to King Edward VII in John's Accents of English 2, referring to the loudness of a protégé's tweed: "Mornin', Harris. Goin' rattin'?"

    That has certainly been my favourite example ever since the book first came out. Where did it come from, John? I guess from some real-life reading from before the Internet, but now that I've searched it there it seems that Edward had ditched Harris by the time he became king. So before 1901, which gives a reasonable timeline for John Galsworthy's 1931 Aunt Em, but makes Bertie Wooster look like a rather late practitioner. Thanks for the link to Language Log, Tom S, but how did Mark Liberman manage to quote tracts of Lady Chatterley's Lover with her husband recast as Lord Clifford?

    Note that John does not consider the word 'morning' in the Harris quip to be among "those that contain the verbal suffix -ing":

    "A few other words are affected (ceiling, morning, evening...) which have weak -ing."

    Of course etymologically they do contain the verbal suffix -ing, but in its capacity as a gerund, and thanks to your link I have been made aware that some dialects do still distinguish between that and the participial -in'.

    John, I hope you won't mind me quoting this for a laugh, with its intriguing implication of a hitherto-undeclared granddaughter. I should imagine -in' is one of the bugbears behind it:

    (Indy, Friday, 11 February)

    "Bad education

    My granddaughter, who is 15, has been set an English homework that involves the study of the language on EastEnders. Am I going mad, or is this nothing more than an exercise is bad grammar, lamentable vocabulary and inadequate communication skills? Learning to speak badly is something kids do without any help from their teachers.

    John Wells, West Wittering, West Sussex"

  37. David Marjanović17 March 2011 at 21:41


    So taking can lose its unstressed vowel, but chicken can't???

  38. I too am greatly surprised by JW's assertion that ˈteɪkŋ̩ is pretty widespread for takin', at least in BrE. Even allowing for a glottalized k it seems even more extreme than ˈtʃɪkŋ̩.

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  40. The -ing pronunciations are just "reading" pronunciations that made a comeback with literary in the 19th century. As such, I regard them as wrong, and not as H variants at all. In the 18th century, huntin', fishin' and shootin' was what was said by the elite.