Etymology Grammar

Why Alice has got to grow up again

[Note: This post was updated on May 23, 2022.)

Q: On your Grammar Myths page, you defend the use of “gotten” and discuss the distinction between “have got” and “have gotten.” Yes, there is a distinction, but there’s a larger issue too. In the spirit of omitting extraneous verbiage, why not simply use “have” instead of “have got”?

A: On the surface, this sounds like a good idea, as if the “got” in “have got” is merely redundant. But the answer is more complicated.

“Get” is an extremely versatile verb and much misunderstood, with many idiomatic usages.

Often, critics of “have got” misunderstand the nature of the verb. The problem is that they confuse “get” and “have,” which are two separate and distinct verbs.

As you know, several forms of the verb “get” legitimately use forms of “have.” We underline that because people sometimes assume “have got” is always incorrect and should be replaced by “have.” Not so.

Here, for example, are two sentences indicating that the speaker owns a car:

(1) “I have a car.”

(2) “I have got a car.”

In the first, the verb is “have,” used in the present tense. And obviously it’s the main verb.

In the second, the verb is “get” is technically in the present perfect tense, with “have” as the auxiliary. But as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, in this idiomatic sense, “have got” is a “specialised use of the perfect” that’s identical in meaning and function to the present tense of “have.” In other words, “I have got a car” = “I have a car.”

Both #1 and #2 are perfectly correct English, and you may choose either. You may prefer one to the other for reasons of style, euphony, or economy of expression. But both are unassailably correct. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language regards this use of “have got” as an informal idiom.)

We mentioned above that “get” has many idiomatic usages. One that sometimes puzzles people is the construction “have got to” in the sense of “must.” For example, “You have got to read this.”

Some people consider this incorrect English. Again, not so! (The OED also calls this sense of “have not” a “specialized use of the perfect,” one equivalent to “must” or “have to.”

The perfect-tense “have got” plus “to” plus a verb in the infinitive (as in “I have got to go”) is often used in place of present-tense “must.” So “You have got to read this” is equivalent to “You must read this” or “You have to read this” (another idiomatic usage).

By “idiomatic” we don’t mean to suggest that “have got to” isn’t absolutely kosher.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out early literary examples of this usage in the works of Disraeli, Dickens, George Eliot, Trollope, Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.

So there’s no reason to avoid using “have got to” in the sense of “must” or “have to.” As M-W says, “Have got to, have to, and the frequently recommended must can all be used in the present tense, but only had to can be used in the past.”

The OED has quite a few citations for the “have got to” usage, including these from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865):

“The first thing I’ve got to do is to grow to my right size again.” And later, “I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve got to grow up again.”

Oxford says that “to have got to” is the equivalent of “to have to” or “to be obliged to.”

The Cambridge Grammar says, “The idiom have got derives historically from a perfect construction,” an origin that’s “reflected in the fact that the have component of it is an auxiliary.”

Cambridge also notes that there is sometimes a difference between “I’ve got to mow the lawn” and “I have to mow the lawn.”

The first sentence expresses the sense of a “single obligation,” Cambridge says, while the second expresses a “single or habitual obligation.”

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