English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Have you got rhythm?

Q: Near the bottom of your home page, you ask, “Have you GOT rhythm?”  No, Simple Simon Babblers, I AIN’T GOT NO rhythm. I’m sick of YOU GOT. What ever happened to YOU HAVE? Correct English would be “Have you rhythm?”

A: Calm down.

The title “Have you got rhythm?” on our home page uses “got” quite correctly. “Have you got” here is the present-perfect form of the verb “get,” used in the second person.

The present-perfect of “get” has been used to denote mere possession (that is, to mean “have”) since the 16th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.

The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1590s:

“What a beard hast thou got; thou hast got more haire on thy chinne, then Dobbin my philhorse hase on his taile.”

Merriam-Webster’s also cites examples from Jane Austen, Charles Lamb, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, and others.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some language commentators objected to the usage, complaining that “got” was superfluous. However, contemporary usage guides accept “have got,” though some consider it informal.

There are two theories about why English speakers began using “have got” to mean “have.”

One is that the verb “have” began losing its sense of possession because of its increasing use as an auxiliary.

The other theory is that “got” was originally inserted because of the tendency to use contracted forms of the verb “have.” So a clunky sentence like “I’ve a cat” became “I’ve got a cat.”

Philip Boswood Ballard, writing in Teaching the Mother Tongue (1921), argues that the “have got” version “implies a stronger sense of possession”  than a simple “have.” We tend to agree.

In case you didn’t know, the headline on our home page was a play on words, a reference to the song “I Got Rhythm,” by George and Ira Gershwin.

Granted, the song title used “got” in a deliberately slangy, nonstandard way. The technically correct version would have been “I’ve Got Rhythm,” though as we’ve said before, song lyricists are allowed poetic license.

The title we wrote, however, is correct. In Teaching the Mother Tongue, Ballard dismisses the objection to “have got” as “a counterfeit invented by schoolmasters.”

Sir Ernest Gowers, writing in the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1965), cites Ballard’s comment and adds, “Acceptance of this verdict is here recommended.”

Nobody objects, of course, to the use of “have got” to mean “have acquired,” though Americans generally use “have gotten” in this sense. The British once used “have gotten” too, as we pointed out back in 2006.

Keep in mind that “get” is an entirely separate verb from “have,” though some of its tenses use the auxiliary “have,” as we wrote on our blog in 2008 and 2010:

We’ve also examined the modern colloquial usage “I got this” (meaning something akin to “This one is mine” or “I’ll take care of this”).

And you may be interested in a comparison of two “have got” usages in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: “She has got a swimming pool” and “She has got to swim each day.”

In examples like the first, the Cambridge Grammar notes, “have got” appears “with an NP [noun phrase] object … expressing possession and similar relations.”

In examples like the second, according to Cambridge, it’s “a catenative verb with a to-infinitival complement  … where the meaning is of obligation or necessity, much like must.”

A catenative verb is one linked to another verb form—in this case, “has got” and “to swim” are linked in meaning “must swim.”

We’ll end with an example of the “have got” usage you asked about, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), by Lewis Carroll:

“Oh dear! I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve got to grow up again! Let me see—how is it to be managed?”

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