A Word, Please: I have got to get this off my chest

November 10, 2010|By June Casagrande

There are a lot of word pairings I avoid. Extra mayonnaise. Officer Jerkface. President Palin.

But of all the two-word assemblages I dodge, the least rational is "have got," as in, "I have got a lot of housework to do" or "You have got a lot of responsibilities." The verb phrase is as common as sunshine and as American as apple pie (except, of course, in Great Britain, where it's as common as cloud cover and as English as organ-meat pie). Yet I can't bring myself to use it consciously, and I cringe when I catch myself using it absentmindedly.

As you may have guessed, that's because I've been harshly "corrected" for using this ubiquitous verb phrase. I'm not alone. "What has happened to plain-old 'have'?" a reader of Barbara Wallraff's Atlantic column "Word Court " once asked. "Is frequent usage making this redundancy correct?"


The correspondent's suggestion that "have got" is a redundancy holds some water, but the implication that it's incorrect goes too far. And to fully understand the reasons I avoid "have got" like kidney pie, you need to take a closer look at this verb phrase.

"Have got" actually serves two functions in English. It can be another way of saying "have." You have some money. You have got some money. But it's also used as a past tense in place of "have gotten": I have got a lot of compliments on my dancing.

Most people who hate "have got" are focused on the first usage — the very "redundancy" that Wallraff's reader spoke of. After all, some argue, why would you say "I have got some money" when you could just say "I have some money"? When are wasted words ever a good idea?

Personally, I find the second usage more irksome. "I have gotten in trouble" sounds "right" to me while "I have got in trouble" sounds like the speaker is as sloppy about past participles as the person who says "I have ate" or "I had drove."

This past participle issue, however, can be quickly cleared up by almost any dictionary. Look up its base form, "get," in "Webster's New World College Dictionary" and right next to it you'll see "gotten, got" — its two past participles listed in order of Webster's preference.

So clearly "gotten" is the better past participle. But if you want to say "I have got into trouble," this Webster's, at least, will back you up.

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