English language Uncategorized

Something’s gotta give

Q: I’m yet another Brit who enjoys your blog. In my schooldays, we were taught that it was clumsy and redundant to use the phrase “have got.” So instead of saying “Jack and Sue have got a dog,” we were encouraged to say “Jack and Sue have a dog.” Is there a similar idea in American English teaching?

A: Poor little “get” is a very misunderstood verb. We use it to mean acquire or have, which of course raises confusion in the present-perfect tense (“have got”), where “have” is used purely as an auxiliary and there’s no redundancy. (More on this later.)

We also use the present-perfect tense of “get” to mean “must,” as in “I simply have got to go on a diet,” which is a more emphatic way of saying “I simply must go on a diet.” And we use “got” by itself (simple past tense) to mean “was allowed to,” as in “I got to choose the movie.” So “get” and its various forms don’t always refer to having or acquiring.

What’s NOT right is using the past (“got”) alone for something in the present, as in “I simply got to go on a diet” or “I got a million bucks in the bank.” These should be “have got” (present perfect of “get”) or “have” (present of “have”). Americans make this mistake a lot, though they usually say “gotta” for “got to”!

But back to your original question. “Have got” isn’t wrong and isn’t (as some Brits believe) an Americanism. It’s perfect English, both in Britain and in the United States, and has been for ages. It’s the present-perfect form of the verb “get.”

Don’t be misled by the presence of “have,” which in this case is not the simple verb meaning to possess, but an auxiliary verb with no meaning of its own. As a linguist would say, it has no content, only function.

Take, for example, the verb “run.” Its primary forms are “run” (present); “ran” (past); “have run” (present perfect”); and “had run” (past perfect). Notice that in these cases, “have” and “had” bear no relationship whatever to the verb meaning possess: they serve a purely grammatical function (to indicate a perfect tense).

In fact, the simple verb “have” also forms its tenses with the auxiliary verb “have.” The primary tenses are “have” (present); “had” (past); “have had” (present perfect); and “had had” (past perfect). Nobody sees any redundancy here.

Similarly, if we take a synonym for the verb “get” – say, “acquire” – its tenses are formed the same way: “acquire” (present); “acquired” (past); “have acquired” (present perfect); and “had acquired” (past perfect). Nobody has a problem with these, either.

The verb “get,” like every other verb in English, has tenses formed with the auxiliary verb “have.” The primary ones are “get” (present”); “got” (past); “have got” [also “have gotten” in the US] (present perfect); and “had got” [also “had gotten” in the US] (past perfect).

The fact that the simple verb “have” (meaning possess) bears some resemblance to “get” is purely coincidental when the auxiliary verb “have” is used to form perfect tenses.

In short, there’s no redundancy in the present-perfect verb form “have got.” But I suspect there’s some redundancy in this answer. Please forgive it! (And if “gotten” gets your goat, see the Sept. 12, 2006, blog item.)

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