Misbegotten Views on Gotten

A few of you were dismayed by our using gotten in our article The Lowdown on Different Than. We wrote: “In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless ‘rules,’ and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers.”

An exasperated gentleman from Australia was “shocked” by the appearance of “gotten,” which he denounced ex cathedra as a “non-word.” His email was generous with vitriol but stingy with evidence. That’s because no language scholar in any English-speaking country would question the legitimacy of gotten.

Gotten has been in continuous use for about seven hundred years, though it all but disappeared from England in the eighteenth century. “In Great Britain got is the only form of the participle used and the older form gotten is considered archaic,” says Bergen and Cornelia Evans’s Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage. “In the United States gotten is still the preferred form of the participle when it is used with have to express a completed action.”

The BBC’s website recently ranked gotten fifteenth on a list of the fifty most annoying “Americanisms.” The Grammarist website explains: “Many English speakers from outside North America resist the encroachment of so-called Americanisms (many of which, like gotten, are not actually American in origin) on their versions of English, and, for mysterious reasons, some feel especially strongly about gotten.”

In The Careful Writer, the American writer-editor Theodore M. Bernstein admits to some reservations about the use of gotten: “Have gotten might occasionally be useful in written language … In most instances, however, a more precise verb would be used: ‘He has gotten [received] his just deserts’; ‘He has gotten [obtained] what he was after’ …”

Roy H. Copperud’s Dictionary of Usage and Style has no such misgivings: “An uneasy idea persists that gotten is improper … Efforts to avoid got by substituting obtained or any other word the writer must strain after are misspent.”

The American linguists Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman offer a further vindication of gotten: “A Brit will tell you that ‘gotten’ is wrong. Not so! The truth is that at one time, English routinely had two past participles for the verb ‘get.’ … While American English retained both forms, British English dropped ‘gotten’ entirely. The result is that we have a nuance of meaning the poor Britons don’t.

“When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have got a dog,’ we mean they own a dog. When we say, ‘Jack and Sue have gotten a dog,’ we mean they have acquired one. There’s a distinct difference between the two statements.”

This article is a classic from our late writer-editor Tom Stern, first published on July 1, 2015.

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15 Comments on Misbegotten Views on Gotten

15 responses to “Misbegotten Views on Gotten

  1. Maxwell H. says:

    Isn’t it acceptable to replace have/has gotten with simply got? In each example in your article, got sounds right enough to me, aside from the first example where have is separated from gotten.

    • Yes, it can be acceptable to use got rather than have or has gotten on a case-by-case basis, as long as you don’t lose the nuance of meaning we refer to in the final paragraph of the article.

  2. Warren M. says:

    I have been rescued.
    I don’t know how many times I’ve had to put on the brakes, hit reverse, hit the pause button and ponder a replacement for “gotten.”
    Thank you.

  3. karen stevens says:

    The best that can be said about “gotten” is that it is an intensifier of the word “got”.
    I am English born and live in New Zealand and “gotten” is not in our spoken or written vocabulary.
    However, it’s a good way of identifying the speaker as American!
    One item that I would like to raise is the way American writers are dropping the word “of” as a preposition in their sentences e.g. “a couple oranges”, “I’ll see you in a couple days”. Is this just an isolated matter or is it the norm in American literature?

  4. Ian Jones says:

    That article was so interesting, in part because I (like many Brits) thought “gotten” to be an unpleasant Americanism. The example of Jack and Sue’s dog is enlightening. Thank you.

  5. Andy says:

    I tend to avoid both “got” and “gotten” as inelegant, and prefer “received” or “acquired.”

    • We appreciate why you might sometimes avoid the forms of “get” as perhaps too casual or lacking the precision and eloquence of other choices. At the same time, our language has contexts in which “get” can
      prove to be more fitting. For example, to us, it seems less natural to say, “I received a job” or “I acquired a raise.”

  6. jesse h says:

    Just a question. In your sentence about the use of “gotten” you use “have debunked.” You do not use the word “have” before “gotten.” Is there a difference? Not an English scholar. Thanks.

    We wrote: “In recent years we have debunked some of these baseless ‘rules,’ and gotten a lot of heat from frustrated readers.”

  7. Brian F Thompson says:

    When I was at grammar school in England up to 1963, I recall my English master saying that the the word “got” was his most detested word. He probably would have considered “gotten” as similar or worse. Now that I’m in the USA, I was volunteering to help people who have English as a second language. As my small attempt to improve their speech I suggested avoiding the word “got” as there are better options in nearly every case. Having said that, I do occasionally say it myself (and generally hate it when I notice). It has little to recommend it except brevity.

  8. Barbara Shelton says:

    My question is not about got or gotten. Rather, you mention participles. Can you help me understand what is the difference between past or present participles and past tense?

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