Get, got, and gotten

A software program that acts as a super spelling checker often stops on the word “got,” and asks, in effect, “did you mean gotten”?

Probably not. “Gotten” has, um, gotten lost as a verb form. There are times when it comes in handy, or should be used, but many people don’t remember those “rules,” understandably so.

“I get a kick out of you” is present tense, of course; the past tense is “I got a kick out of you.” Take another step back, and would you say “I have got a kick out of you” or “I have gotten a kick out of you”?

Some books say “have got” is more British than it is American, while others say that “have gotten” started out as British, but they just have forgotten it. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “English speakers in North America seem to use both got and gotten in a way that is almost freely variable.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one many news outlets use, has a usage note has a helpful explanation:

[A]lthough both gotten and got are accepted past participles for most senses of the verb get, gotten has become the prevailing form in the U.S. in all speech and writing, especially for the senses of receiving, becoming, or arriving. “Gotten” is useful, it says, “to distinguish between possession, as in the informal I’ve got a car, and acquisition, as in I’ve gotten a car.”

But today’s readers will see far more “gottens” than “gots” with variations of “have.” Many writers may not have “gotten” the message that “got” can go with “have,” especially when you’ve “got” something in hand. Maybe it’s the contraction of “have” into “‘ve” that’s the problem, or maybe it’s the difficulty of figuring out whether “I’ve got/gotten a cold” means “I have a cold as we speak” or “I obtained a cold from the germy people around me.”

If you haven’t “got” the distinction, don’t worry; most of the time, it doesn’t matter.

As for “get,” some style manuals advise using “get” only to mean “obtain,” and not as a substitute for “become” or “are.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, for example, says that, “except in a handful of idioms, like get going, get lost and get sick, do not substitute get for is or are.” That means two people “are married,” in The Times; they don’t “get married.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage, though, says, in effect, “balderdash.” “Get is good English,” Garner’s says. “Yet many writers want to avoid it because they consider it too informal.” Those who want to use “get” only to mean “obtain” are “pedants,” Garner’s says.

There’s one more variation we have to “get” to. “I’ve got a cold” is often lambasted as redundant, since “I have a cold” is sufficient, unless you want to emphasize not the cold, but your possession (“I’ve got a cold”) or acquisition (“I’ve gotten a cold”) of said cold. But idiom trumps “correctness” nearly every time.

A couple of thing to watch out for, though: “I got to get some medicine for this cold” must have a “have” (I have/I’ve got to get …”). And if you just have to use “gotta” in print, you’ve got to remember that you might possibly make yourself or your speaker sound less than erudite. Unless you’re doing it for effect, it could get you in trouble with your readers. And that’s gotta hurt.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.