Fixin’ to

"I’m fixin’ to wash the dishes."

(Ching 1987:338)


Sentences with fixin’ to place an event in the near future. Speakers of mainstream English may be more familiar with the variations in (2), which also place the event of telling the story in the near future.

1) Daisy’s fixin’ to tell the story.
(Myers 2014:56)

2) a. Daisy’s going to tell the story.

b. Daisy’s about to tell the story.

c. Daisy’s planning to tell the story.

Crucially, however, speakers who use fixin’ to note that there is a difference in meaning between (1) and any of the sentences in (2) (Goldie Ann McQuaid and Harold Torrence, p.c.). This difference may be difficult to pin down, but see semantic properties below for some discussion.

Fixin’ to also has a number of phonological variants, perhaps the most well-recognized being finna. Consider:

3) a. I finna get off the bus.
(Thomas 2013:9)

b. I’m fixin’ to get off the bus.

Like with fixin’ to, finna can most easily be paraphrased in mainstream English with going to/gonna, planning to, and about to. However, such paraphrasing does not necessarily produce identical meaning. Furthermore, it remains unclear exactly what the relationship between fixin’ to and finna is.


Who says this?

According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, fixin’ to is used by speakers in the Southern United States, particularly the South Atlantic and Gulf States. The contracted form finna (and its variants) is a feature of African American English (Green 2002) and, as Thomas and Grinsell (2014) note, is used outside of the South as well.

Drawing on a corpus from Twitter, Jack Grieve has created maps that illustrate the relative frequency of usage for these two forms in the United States. They can be found here.

Syntactic properties

Progressive aspect

The distribution of fixin’ to mirrors that of a progressive verb, which denotes a continuous action, plus an infinitive. Using fix to without the progressive is impossible.

4) a.    I’m fixin’ to finish that budget proposal today.

b. * I fixed to finish that budget proposal today.

c. * I had fixed to finish that budget proposal today.

d. * I’ll fix to finish that budget proposal today.

Non-present tense

Fixin’ to is most commonly used in the present tense. It is possible to use the construction in other tenses, though such usage is relatively restricted.

Use of fixin’ to with the past tense seems marginally acceptable and restricted to specific contexts. Appalachian English speaker Goldie Ann McQuaid (p.c.) notes that past tense usage is only appropriate in a reportative context such as narrating a story, as in the following example:

5) Context: You get home from dinner out at a restaurant and a housemate asks what you ate for dinner.
I was fixin’ to have steak for dinner but they ran out so I didn’t get any.

While the sentence in (5) shows that fixin’ to is compatible with the simple past tense, using the past perfect tense is restricted to a particular interpretation with a repeating event. Consider:

6) I had been fixin’ to get a new bike for years and finally did.

Crucially, the sentence in (6) is only acceptable with the interpretation that you kept getting very close to getting a new bike but then something prevented you from getting it each time. Furthermore, fixin’ to in (6) cannot be replaced with planning to and preserve the same meaning.

Use of fixin’ to with the future tense, however, is unacceptable:

7) # I’m so tired I’ll be fixin’ to go to sleep right when I get home.

Expletive there

Myers (2014) documents grammatical uses of fixin’ to in expletive constructions, where a meaningless word like there is used to fill a grammatical "slot." (8) is an example of this:

8) There’s fixin’ to shine a full moon.

However, expletive constructions that refer to the existence of a thing or person seem to be only marginally acceptable. For example:

9) a. # There’s fixin’ to be a new Walmart.

b. ? There’s fixin’ to be rain.

c.     There’s fixin’ to be trouble.

The only example that is wholly acceptable is (9c), and native speakers Goldie Ann McQuaid (p.c.) and Harold Torrence (p.c.) have suggested that it is most comfortable to use an expletive construction with fixin’ to in a context that refers to “trouble” or negative consequences. This may be because this entire phrase is so frequently used that it has lexicalized and can act as an exception to syntactic patterns like the ban on existential expletive constructions.

Optional be

Smith (2009) points out that although fixin’ to is often seen with some form of the verb be preceding it, this is not required. It is common for be to not occur when fixin’ to is not associated with the main verb in the sentence, as in the following examples, respectively:

10) a. He yelled at John for fixin’ to change the plan.

b. Fixin’ to start dinner, Mary took some celery out of the fridge.

Smith also notes that be may be optional in general, though perhaps more commonly when used with the variant finna:

11) We finna leave out of here early.

Though one may expect that if optional be is restricted to finna it should pattern with the typical distribution of null copula in African-American English, this is clearly not the case, because the example in (3a) shows a first-person singular context with null copula, which is generally unacceptable (Green 2002). (See our null copula page for more discussion.)

Semantic properties

Immediate future

Fixin’ to and its related expressions (going to, about to, and planning to) all refer to events that happen in the future; however, they each restrict the event to different timeframes. Going to is the most general, allowing an event to happen any time in the future. Similarly, planning to allows, and may even require, an event to happen in the non-immediate future. About to, however, refers specifically to the immediate future. Similarly, fixin’ to places an event in the near future, though how near depends on context and may also vary between speakers.

In a study published in 1987, Ching provided an example with minimal context to a group of respondents, who reported variable interpretations about the timeframe to which fixin’ to refers:

12) I’m just fixin’ to get to work [on homework].
(Ching 1987:334)

Respondents concluded that the student would begin her work “as soon as possible,” “within the next thirty minutes to an hour,” or “within a few hours at the most” (Ching 1987:335). While these time frames may be quite similar, their variation still highlights the importance of contextual information and speaker interpretation in determining the immediacy of a future event.

Preparatory delay

Ching (1987) and Myers (2014) claim that fixin’ to crucially requires a delay, caused by a “preparatory activity” between the speech act and the action to which it refers. Consider the following example from Smith (2009:15):

13) Fixin’ to start dinner, Mary took some celery out of the fridge.

Here, Mary is going to start cooking dinner immediately, but only after a delay, caused by taking celery out of the fridge, which she must do to prepare to cook. However, the preparatory activity need not be a necessary step in preparing to complete the action. Consider the following situation from Ching (1987:333):

14) Instructor: There’s coke spilled on the third floor.
Maid [Working on the second floor and occupied with some duty]: All right, I’m fixin’ to take care of it.

When asked what the maid meant, 87.5% (a clear majority) of survey respondents selected the answer “The maid will take care of the coke spilled on the third floor as soon as she is through with the task she is performing while the instructor was talking to her.” As such, she will attend to the spill in the immediate future, but finishing the task at hand causes a delay before cleaning up the coke and constitutes a preparatory activity.

The exact nature of the preparatory activity may not even be so clear. In (15), for example, what exactly you will do before washing the dishes is unknown—perhaps you will fill a basin with soapy water or even go walk your dog. Regardless, using fixin’ to implies that you will take some action before actually washing the dishes.

15) I’m fixin’ to wash the dishes.
(Ching 1987:338)

While this notion of requisite delay has been well documented in the literature, it may not be unique to fixin’ to. In fact, some delay is inherently necessary when using any future-referring expression given that you cannot discuss an action that will happen in the future while it is happening. As a result, some speakers may interpret this inherent delay as a salient property of fixin’ to while it may go unnoticed by others.

Durative complements

Ching (1987) notes that the predicate that follows fixin’ to must denote an event that happens at a clearly defined point in time. When fixin’ to precedes a predicate that denotes a process that takes place over a span of time, what is relevant is the specific point in time at which the process begins or ends. Consider:

16) a. # I’m fixin’ to lose weight one of these days.

b.     We’re fixin’ to start a family.

The sentence in (16a) is not acceptable because “one of these days” is too vague about when the weight loss will happen, and losing weight is a process that lasts an indeterminate amount of time. However, (16b) is acceptable since it refers to the act of starting a family and not the process of actually raising children.

Awareness

Ching (1987) and Myers (2014) note that in using fixin’ to, the speaker must be aware of the situation to which they are referring. You cannot be fixin’ to do something without having already been aware of what that something is. Consider:

17) Context: You get home and go straight to your room without passing through the kitchen. Then a housemate comes and asks you to do the dishes.
#I’m fixin’ to get to it.

18) Context: You cook dinner and leave dishes in the sink. Later a housemate asks you to do the dishes.
I’m fixin’ to get to it.

The differing context between (17) and (18) shows that a speaker must be aware of a situation that they are fixin’ to attend to in order to be using the expression acceptably. It should be noted that this sort of awareness is required by all of the future-referring expressions that are similar to fixin’ to and in fact the only way to appropriately respond to the context in (17) would be with the simple future will.

Direct evidence/certainty

Similar to the awareness requirement, though even more restrictive, the speaker must have some sort of direct evidence to claim that something is fixin’ to happen. For example, when evaluating the likelihood of rain, the sentence in (19) is only an acceptable judgment if you are outside and see the sky full of dark, stormy clouds, feel wind, and can smell rain. Crucially, the same sentence would be unacceptable if you were watching the weather on television and saw a radar map indicating rain would be coming to your area.

19) It’s fixin’ to rain.

This requirement for direct evidence suggests that a speaker must be confident that an action will occur in order to say it’s fixin’ to happen. This becomes clear when the adjunct maybe is introduced. Consider:

20) Context: You're outside and see clouds gathering, but you don't quite have enough evidence to say "It's fixin' to rain" (wind blowing, smell of rain, etc.)
#Maybe it's fixin' to rain.

The sentence in (20) is unacceptable because of the uncertainty implied by maybe (and perhaps the uncertainty of the direct evidence). Thus, fixin’ to cannot be used in a context that involves hedging as in (20). Similarly, it is unacceptable to claim that something is fixin’ to happen and then suggest that it won’t happen. Although this is not unique to fixin’ to, it is not true of all similar future-referring expressions. Consider:

21) Context: You’ve been getting take out a lot recently since you’ve been too tired to cook when you get home from work. You mention to a co-worker that it’s getting to be too expensive and you’d like to change this habit.

a. # I’m fixin’ to cook dinner tonight but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to.

b. # I’m going to cook dinner tonight but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to.

c. # I’m about to cook dinner tonight but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to.

d. I’m planning to cook dinner tonight but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to.

While fixin’ to often patterns similarly to planning to, in the case of certainty, planning to allows some degree of hedging where fixin’ to—like about to and going to—does not.

Intentionality

Considering the properties of speaker awareness, direct evidence, and certainty, it is reasonable to assume that intentionality would also be a salient property of fixin’ to. However, while intentionality may be present in certain uses of fixin’ to—such as (1), (3b), or (12a)—it is certainly not required:

22) Context: It's really hot and you're very dehydrated and feel like you're going to faint.
It's so hot, I'm fixin' to collapse.

In the context of (22), one surely does not intend to faint; however, fixin’ to is perfectly acceptable. Furthermore, fixin’ to can be used with inanimate subjects that inherently are unable to intentionally do anything, as described in the next section.

Animacy

Similar to going to and about to but unlike planning to, fixin’ to allows both animate and inanimate subjects. Consider the following, offered by Smith (2009) and Myers (2014):

23) a. That chair’s fixin’ to break.

b. My head’s fixin’ to split open.

c. The moon is fixing to shine.

d. It’s fixin’ to rain.

Negation

Fixin’ to can be used in a context with negation; however, it often gets a special emphatic meaning, in a way similar to not about to (Collins 2009). Consider the example in (24).

24) I’m not fixin’ to settle for someone unless they love me like I love myself.

Interpretations: a. # I’m not going settle for someone unless...

b.     I’m not about to settle for someone unless...

Sentence (24) is less likely to be interpreted as simply negation of fixin’ to settle, as suggested by the (a) interpretation. The (b) interpretation is the more likely one, where it is implied that the speaker insists on refusing to settle.

Finna

As mentioned previously, fixin’ to has a number of phonological variants most of which are typically grouped under the prototypical finna and are features of African American English (Green 2002). Smith (2009) considers finna as a more grammaticalized form of fixin’ to drawing on evidence of a similar etymological history, phonetic reduction, and broadened syntactic and semantic distribution. However, the exact details of the relationship between fixin’ to and finna are far from clear. At the very least, finna also refers to the immediate future:

25) Context: A young woman on the bus is listening to music through her Blackberry. She is approached by an older woman who does not have a cell phone and wants to borrow her phone to make a call.
OW: “Love, can I make just one call from your phone?”
YW: [shakes head]
OW: “Just one call, I pay you a dollar...”
YW: “I finna get off the bus, I finna get off the bus.”
The young woman exited the bus within the next 3 stops, less than 5 minutes from the time of utterance, making evident the immediately proximate meaning of the variant.

Like previous examples of fixin’ to, (25) shows finna implying that the action—in this case, getting off the bus—will happen in the near future. However, finna seems to be more permissive than fixin’ to in its restriction on imminent futurity. For example, finna can be used in a context where the predicate that follows it is an ongoing process, with no clear endpoint, not located at any clear point in time, as in (26).

26) Guess I’m finna play my life out.
(Thomas and Grinsell 2014:178)

The acceptability of (26) contrasts directly with the unacceptability of (16a) above, showing a difference in semantic restrictions of fixin’ to and finna.

Page contributed by Peter Staub, with advising from Jason Zentz, on July 14, 2017.

Updates/revisions: June 6, 2018 (Katie Martin)

Please cite this page as: Staub, Peter & Jason Zentz. 2017. Fixin' to. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/fixin-to. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD). Updated by Katie Martin (2018).

References

Phenomenon Category: 
Tense, Aspect, Mood
Phenomenon Dialect: 
African American (Vernacular) English
Smoky Mountain English
Southern American English