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A Word, Please: Grammar 'rule' has got to be kidding

March 22, 2013|By June Casagrande

There's got to be something in the air.

In recent weeks, I've gotten not one but two e-mails from readers about the word "got" and its cousin "gotten."

"I will never forget several teachers telling me that using 'got' in any sentence anytime was simply being lazy," wrote John in Pasadena, "that it was bad English, uncouth, uneducated, etc."

We could probably write this off as a fluke, perhaps guessing that John went to a not-so-great school. But an e-mail from Dana in Philadelphia gives a little more context.

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"When I was a freshman at Cornell in 1955, my English professor, who went on to become a poet of note, advised me that there is no such word as 'gotten' when I used it in a paper," Dana wrote.

Stories about "lessons" like these are more common than you might guess. And I can never say which is more shocking: the amazing staying power of bad grammar information or the brazenness of the people who pushed it.

And though "got" has its problems, both these teachers were way out of line.

The most common objection to "got" is that, when paired with "have," it's redundant and unnecessary. "He has got $20."

As an editor, I'm all for economy of words. So I trim out a lot of "gots." In news writing especially, "He has got $20" is a poor alternative to "He has $20." But that's an aesthetic, not a grammar rule.

According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "have got" was a well-established idiom until the late 1800s when a single critic, Richard Grant White, decided it had to go. People figured White must have known what he was talking about and, as a result, started repeating his "rule" in grammar textbooks.

Thus "have got" got labeled an outlaw.

But John's teachers went even further. Based on John's report, they were telling kids that the word "got" should never be used, period.

That's ridiculous. "Got" is the past tense of "get," which critics don't seem to have any problem with. Instead, the "got" squad focuses on the past tense alone, suggesting that they probably haven't thought things through. It's like condemning the word "walked" while expressing no objection to "walk."

"Got" has a number of legitimate uses. Among its many meanings are "became," as in "She got angry" and "He got wise." It can also sometimes function as an auxiliary in place of "to be," as in "They got married" and "She got promoted."

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