One of my longstanding usage questions answered

I've been puzzled over the last ten years or so by the rise of the phrase "I am wanting to" in spoken English.

Maybe I just wasn't listening closely when in the 80's and 90's, but I don't recall people saying that. For example, "I am wanting to go to the Bears game."

I try to adhere to proper usage when possible (as I recall from one episode of 30 Rock, Liz asks Jack why he's wearing a tuxedo, and Jack replies, "It's after six, what am I, a farmer?"). But I no longer correct people when they misspeak. For example, if they say "literally" but they don't mean it, or if they say "I could care less" when it's clear that they couldn't. No one likes a usage scold, and where do you draw the line? Should I be berating guys in the men's room who don't wash their hands, or counseling people not to smoke for health reasons? At some point, I trust adults to know better.

But hearing people say "I am wanting to" hits my brain with visceral discordance. It sounds so odd, even grotesque. How did it come into being? Was it once acceptable usage, back from banishment? Language has evolved quite a bit if you look at broad time periods, and so usage we once found perfectly normal, like the passival tense, now sounds like the type of error made by someone for whom English is a second or third language.

Perhaps it was just a way of softening the expression. Sometimes you want something, other times you want it, but to a lesser degree, so you're wanting it. Still sounds wrong, but perhaps that's how it arose.

I tried finding a definitive answer to the question online but couldn't, so I decided to send a tweet to my usage idol, Bryan Garner, author of my usage Bible, Garner's Modern American Usage. I revere this book so much I own three editions of it, and going to grab the link just now I realized there's now a Kindle edition, so I will probably own that version also by the time I've finished writing this post.

I asked Garner:

Can you comment on the usage of the awkward sounding phrase "I am wanting to"? When, if ever, is it preferable to "I want to"?

Garner responded:


So there you have it.

I'm still curious to hear the story of the rise of this phrase in spoken English (a quick peek at Google n-gram viewer indicates low usage in books over the years). Perhaps someone will do that sleuthing someday.

Regardless, from now on, if you say to me, "Literally, I want to eat a person, I could care less what everyone thinks." I will cringe, but I'll bite my tongue.

But if you say, "Literally, I am wanting to eat a person, I could care less what everyone thinks." We'll have words. If you want to eat a person, stand behind that feeling, don't soften it with such a feeble construction.