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Is "Got" Proper English?

"I must get your book," "Got milk?" and more.

By
Bonnie Trenga Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
January 14, 2010
Episode #204

got

Guest-writer Bonnie Trenga is going to help us get along with the word “get.” Don’t let others’ use of it get your goat. “Get” is a perfectly normal word. It just happens to have many meanings and is used in many idioms and colloquial expressions, some of which are not accepted.

A reader named Sigrid felt that she should correct herself when she wrote, “Must get your book soon.” She writes, “I almost erased the word ‘get’ and replaced it with ‘purchase,’ but that sounded too formal; however, use of the word ‘get’ would make a great podcast. I’m often changing that word and substituting it for another, frequently some form of the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to have,’ in my clients’ manuscripts.” Sigrid is also wondering about how to use the verb “to get” in the past tense. Let’s get to the bottom of things.

You don’t need to censor yourself when the word “get” crops up.

When You Can Use “Get”

The quick answer to Sigrid’s question is that you don’t need to censor yourself when the word “get” crops up, and it’s probably best to stop correcting others unless they use a definitely illegal phrase (more on that later). “‘Get’ is good English” (1). It would be almost impossible to get through a day without saying “get.”

No style guide I checked bans the use of “get.” In fact, most authorities laud how useful the word is. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage provides a list of “natural uses in which it passes virtually unnoticed:

  • get a job

  • get my book for me

  • get rich

  • get one’s feet wet

  • flattery will get you nowhere

  • get going

  • get the upper hand etc.” (2). 

A search for “get” on Dictionary.com yields one group of meanings that is 63 items long (3). You can even use “get” instead of “be” in passive constructions if you want to put more emphasis on who did the action. The American Heritage Dictionary compares these two sentences: “The demonstrators were arrested” and “The demonstrators got arrested” (4). In the first sentence, using the verb “to be” implies that the police were the driving force behind the arrest. In the second sentence, using the verb “to get” places more emphasis on the demonstrators themselves.

Tenses of “Get”

Now let’s get to the question of tense. “Get” and “gets” are the present-tense forms of “to get,” as in “She gets mad at herself when she’s late.” The past tense is “got,” as in “She got mad.”

Now comes the tricky part: we have two choices when it comes to the past participle. A past participle is a word like “broken” in this sentence: “She has broken her wrist twice.” If you speak American English, you will use “gotten” as the past participle, as in “He has gotten the same gift three years in a row.” Users of British English, on the other hand, will say “got” (5): “He has got the same gift three years in a row.”

When You Might Choose Another Word Instead of “Get”

As we’ve already said, “get” is normal English, and there’s no need to substitute another word for it. However, if you’re writing a very formal paper, or know that someone in your audience will object to the word “get” for some reason, you can use more formal words such as “receive,” “purchase,” and “obtain.” It’s up to you to decide when to be formal. Sigrid decided correctly that it would sound overly stuffy to write this to a favorite author: “I must purchase your book.”

“Have Got”

Many listeners, including Sigrid, have been wondering if the phrase “have got” is acceptable English. Well, you have got to check out our previous episode on that topic. It’ll tell you that the answer is yes, you can use this expression, though it is considered informal.

Non-Standard Uses

Before we get going, you should get up to speed on which expressions are considered non-standard. Some colloquial or informal uses of “get” and “got” are controversial (6), and you wouldn’t want to write them unless you’re writing a character who speaks slang. For example, it would not be Standard English to say, “You got to try this” if you mean “You must try this” or “You have got to try this.” “You got to try this” would be acceptable only if you mean “You had the opportunity to try this.” Still, you will hear people use “got” in this manner.

Another common use of “got” that is not technically grammatically correct is the advertising slogan “Got milk?” Nevertheless, you’ll still hear takeoffs of this expression. At a recent dentist appointment, I saw a shirt that read “Got braces?”

Thus is the unholy power of advertising.

Summary

In this episode, we got friendly with the useful word “get.” You get to use it whenever you want, unless you must conform to formality.

Grammar Girl iPhone App

If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you can get even more great Grammar Girl audio content in our iPhone app. For a one-time fee of $1.99 you get exclusive weekly bonus tracks. If you go listen right now, the bonus track explains whether band names like Coldplay and the Black Eyed Peas are singular or plural.

Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional, 365 bite-size writing tips, fun quizzes and puzzles, and efficient memory tricks--The Grammar Devotional.

2010 Follow-Up

Finally, thanks to everyone who posted interesting comments about the pronunciation of years in foreign languages. The short answer is that in most foreign languages speakers pronounce the year in some way that represents the full number such as "nineteen hundred ninety-nine" or "one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine." I was interested to learn that in some Asian languages such as Thai and Mandarin Chinese speakers pronounce each digit, so this year would be the equivalent of two-zero-one-zero. Only in a few languages such as Norwegian and Croatian do speakers seem to use a short-cut similar to "twenty-ten."You can read all the comments on last week's transcript. They're really interesting.

Also, the poll results had 542 people voting for the pronunciation "twenty-ten," 367 people voting for "two thousand ten," and 223 people saying they would use both pronunciations. So it looks to me as if twenty-ten is the winner.

References

1. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 391-2.
2. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 329-30.
3. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/get. Accessed Jan 8, 2010.
4. American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 206.
5. Garner, B. Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 391-2.
6. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, pp. 329-30.

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