Q: I was reading a blog entry by an expert on the English language, and I noticed that he used the expression “I got me to thinking.” Is this proper English?
A: No, “I got me to thinking “ is not a grammatical construction. Anyone who uses it is probably joking or being folksy or making a typo.
So let’s assume the blogger meant to write “It got me to thinking.” This is a very common way of speaking – but is it acceptable English?
When we use the verb “get” in a causative way (meaning something is caused to happen), the verb that follows is usually either an infinitive or a present participle:
(1) “It got me to think” (“to think” = preposition + infinitive).
(2) “It got me thinking” (“thinking” = participle).
These are both standard English, and very common. But there’s also a third construction, one that appears to be a hybrid of the other two:
(3) “It got me to thinking” (“to thinking” = preposition + participle).
The verb phrase at the center of all this is “get to thinking,” which consists of verb (“get”) + preposition (“to”) + present participle (“thinking”).
This is an extremely common way of using the verb “get.” We hear things like “we got to talking” and “I got to thinking” all the time.
The verbs “fall” and “set” were once commonly used this way, too, and such usages can be found in older writing.
Examples: “He fell to eating” … “We fell to laughing” … “They set him to working” … “She set to making the beds.”
In usages like these, “get to” and “fall to” and “set to” all mean something like “start.” Some activity –represented by the participle (the “ing” word) – is being caused, or put into play.
But back to your question or rather the usage behind the apparent typo that inspired it. Is “get to thinking” legitimate English?
As common as this is, we haven’t found much about it in usage guides or dictionaries.
One of the few authorities that has any comment at all is the Longman English Dictionary, which calls it an “informal” usage.
Longman says the phrase “get to thinking/wondering something” means “to start thinking something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking how disappointed his parents would be.”
The Macmillan Dictionary does not give this usage a label one way or another. It simply notes that “get to doing something” means “start doing something,” and gives this example: “He got to thinking that it was all his fault.”
In this sense, according to Macmillan, “get to” means “start on,” “begin,” “set about,” “embark on,” etc.
Even the Oxford English Dictionary has little to say on the subject. Under its entry for the verb “get,” it notes that the verb is sometimes followed by a present participle (as in “get talking”).
It dates this construction from 1727 (in the phrase “get writing”), and it includes some very modern-sounding citations: “I got thinking” (1872), and “they got talking” (1889).
The very familiar “get going” was first recorded in writing in 1897 and has been going strong ever since.
But Oxford has no comment on the version that includes the preposition, as in “get to thinking” or “get to talking.”
We tend to agree with Longman that phrases like these seem more at home in informal English. But then so do the shorter versions, “get thinking” and “get talking.”
All of them are normally used in conversational English and casual writing. And in our view, that’s probably where they belong.