When 'get' is in the past

The Revolutionary War split the colonies from England, and with it, American English began to split from British English. We dropped letters (colour/color, humour/humor) or transposed them (theatre/theater, centre/center). We replaced their words with our own (lorry/truck, chemist/drugstore), and we added a lot more (aerobics, wannabe).

We’ve got our own language now. Or, we’ve gotten our own language now.

You can say it either way, but they have slightly different meanings.

First, a reminder of verb tenses: We have present tense for something that happens now, past tense for something that happened, future tense for something that will happen, and past participles for things that need the helper verbs “has/have/had” to differentiate things that have happened recently (present perfect), things that will have happened (future perfect), and things that had happened before something else (past perfect).

Got that?

“Get” is the present and future tense for “acquire, obtain, understand, achieve,” and all those other “I have it!” verbs. “Got” is the simple past tense, as in “I got it yesterday.” We and the British still agree on this.

It’s when we get away from the simple and into the participle that the schism comes in. As Theodore M. Bernstein wrote in Watch Your Language, “Some writers on usage tend to esteem British English above American English, and for them only got is legitimate and gotten is cast into outer darkness.”

That prevents the poor British, though, from differentiating between something they have and something they acquired. A British subject who says “I’ve got chicken pox” is unable to communicate whether he has chicken pox right now, whether he had them at some time in the past, or whether he just caught them. (Yes, he could say “I have chickenpox,” but then we wouldn’t have a column, would we?)

An American who says “I’ve got chickenpox” means she has them right now. “I’ve gotten chicken pox,” by contrast, could mean that she has had them in the past, or has recently acquired them. “Have got” indicates possession; “have gotten” indicates acquisition. As a nuance, it’s not perfect (though it is past perfect and present perfect), but it at least narrows the possibilities.

The British sometimes disdain “gotten”: The British journalist and author Charles Whibley wrote in 1908 that the “ten” ending of “gotten” “suggests either willful archaism or useless slang,” and that it is “like a piece of dead wood in a tree, and is better lopped off.”

The maligned past participle of “get” is not an ill-gotten gain, though. The British used it regularly until about the time the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock, and it was considered standard British English until about the time Whibley got so incensed about it.

Even if you’re American, though, you can still say “have got,” as in “I’ve got a secret.” Some will insist that “I have a secret” is proper, but Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that “the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.”

Bernstein, who first wrote Watch Your Language in 1958 and who died in 1979, cautioned that “have got and have gotten are appropriate to spoken language, but usually are inappropriate to written language.” That advice has gotten outdated, though, even in Bernstein’s beloved New York Times. While the 1976 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says, “There seems to be no good reason for using gotten,” the 1999 edition, the most recent in print, advises: “In American English, gotten is the usual participle, rather than got.”

Somewhere, Bernstein is muttering under his breath: “Gotten Himmel!”

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.