A Word, Please: Lessons on the use of ‘got’
There’s got to be something in the air.
In recent weeks, I’ve gotten not one but two e-mails from readers about the word “got” and its cousin “gotten.”
“I will never forget several teachers telling me that using ‘got’ in any sentence anytime was simply being lazy,” wrote John in Pasadena, “that it was bad English, uncouth, uneducated, etc.”
We could probably write this off as a fluke, perhaps guessing that John went to a not-so-great school. But an e-mail from Dana in Philadelphia gives a little more context.
“When I was a freshman at Cornell in 1955, my English professor, who went on to become a poet of note, advised me that there is no such word as ‘gotten’ when I used it in a paper,” Dana wrote.
Stories about “lessons” like these are more common than you might guess. And I can never say which is more shocking: The amazing staying power of bad grammar information or the brazenness of the people who pushed it.
And though “got” has its problems, both these teachers were way out of line.
The most common objection to “got” is that, when paired with “have,” it’s redundant and unnecessary. “He has got $20.”
As an editor, I’m all for economy of words. So I trim out a lot of “gots.” In news writing especially, “He has got $20” is a poor alternative to “He has $20.” But that’s an aesthetic, not a grammar, rule.
According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “have got” was a well-established idiom until the late 1800s when a single critic, Richard Grant White, decided it had to go. People figured White must have known what he was talking about and, as a result, started repeating his “rule” in grammar textbooks.
Thus “have got” got labeled an outlaw.
But John’s teachers went even further. Based on John’s report, they were telling kids that the word “got” should never be used, period.
That’s ridiculous. “Got” is the past tense of “get,” which critics don’t seem to have any problem with. Instead, the “got” squad focuses on the past tense alone, suggesting that they probably haven’t thought things through. It’s like condemning the word “walked” while expressing no objection to “walk.”
“Got” has a number of legitimate uses. Among its many meanings are “became,” as in “She got angry” and “He got wise.” It can also sometimes function as an auxiliary in place of “to be,” as in “They got married” and “She got promoted.”
It seems that John’s teachers were insisting that students must instead say “She became angry” and “They were married.” These are fine choices with a crisp, formal ring to them. But “gots” are just as grammatical.
So John’s teachers were way out of line. But what about our Cornell professor? Well, I suspect he was confused.
In British English, the preferred past participle of “get” is usually “got.” “She has got herself into trouble again.”
In American English, most dictionaries allow “got” as the past participle but prefer “gotten.” Today I get well. Yesterday I got well. In the past I have gotten well.
In recent years, Dana has had the good sense to look this word up in the dictionary: “I see it has become accepted, so there is now such a word.”
Too bad Dana’s professor didn’t have as much sense. If my 1933 Oxford Universal Dictionary is any indication, he would have seen that “gotten” was legit all along.
Some people don’t like the sound, the informality or the inefficiency that “got” can bring. That’s a valid position. But when they start telling people it’s wrong, you know things have gotten out of hand.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.