Grammar Misbegotten Views on Gotten |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

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.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

34 responses to “Misbegotten Views on Gotten

  1. Fran Connor says:

    Thank you for clearing up the ‘gotten’ problem. It is one of the most horrible words in the English language in my opinion. Now I know I am not alone and many fellow Brits and Aussies etc despise it. Of course if Americans wish to use it then it simply confirms Shaw’s ‘Two countries divided by a common language’.

    I really enjoy the grammar newsletter/blog. Thanks and keep it up! Or up it keep or whatever…

  2. Jennifer says:

    ‘Jack and Sue got a dog’
    That’s the equivalent. We do have the nuance you talk of.

    • We appreciate hearing from you, but we and you do not see eye to eye on this matter. We discern a subtle but distinct difference between “got a dog” and “have gotten a dog.” Maybe this is just an American thing.

  3. Gary W. says:

    Oh my gosh; gotten is acceptable in writing and speaking.
    I must say I prefer this… be totally forgotten.

  4. Anne P. says:

    Thanks for using “just deserts” as part of an example in this newsletter. If you’ve written an article about why it is spelled as it is (one s in the middle), I missed it. Its origin in the verb “to deserve” might make interesting fodder for a future article.

    • That is a good observation. We do cover this in our “Commonly Confused Words” section on our website. We’ll consider including it in a future article.

  5. Melody B. says:

    I’ve been wondering about this for years, but never thought to look it up.

  6. Robb M. says:

    Thanks as always for interesting grammar material. The Australian gentleman you referred to about use of the word ‘gotten’ must be of the same age and stage as me; that is, with his formative years in mid 20C Australia. For the word was definitely frowned upon by English-speaking Australians then. It was viewed as American. This was at a time before the onset of television and frequent international travel with their internationalising impact upon our Englishes. They were not as interchangeable as they appear now. Yet Australians of that time all used forgotten and ill-gotten and other similar endings without demur. Still, even now, the word gotten still hits my ears as different although I’ve been known to use it. It’s amazing how language can be viewed as static, unchangeable by its users when the reality is that it changes every day. Keep up the good work.

    • Jules says:

      It is just laziness to use “get, got and gotten”. I have noticed with increasing annoyance that American writers fail to employ other terms such as received,attained, bought, etc. Just lazy!

      • It seems unnatural to say “I received a job,” or “I attained a raise.”

        • Rotimi Afesumeh says:

          My thoughts exactly, laziness, not helped by twitter and social media. Where ever you can use “got” there is always a better though longer alternative. I use “gotten” but never in a formal writing. My back ground is Nigerian.

  7. Deryn T. says:

    Like the Australian man, we New Zealanders find gotten hard on the ears. I do appreciate the difference, as seen in the last quote. However, we would put ‘Jack and Sue have recently got a dog’. That would make the distinction between having already had the dog for some time or just ‘gotten’ the dog.
    Enjoy you site, even though, from time to time, we speak a (albeit slightly) different language.

  8. Peggy Ball says:

    If you want to say they OWN a dog, you certainly do not need the GOT at all.
    “Jack and Sue have a dog” is all you need to say. In the second sentence, why not say they have BOUGHT a dog.
    GOT is not a particularly pretty word, and my suggestion is never use it with HAVE, as in “How much money do you have?” Not “How much money have you got?”
    By the way, in Robb M.’s reply, is “…the same age and stage as me” becoming acceptable? (rather than the correct “…same age and stage as I.”)

    • All of the sentences in the blog are grammatically correct. It is a matter of preference. Robb’s phrase is considered informal (it is not our practice to correct the grammar and punctuation of the people who write in).

  9. DottyDave says:

    Yes, I think the word “gotten” does exist, even though it does not appear so much in non-US English.

    I notice, though that on the would have / had page on this site:-

    The example, of “If I had gotten paid. . . “, (where paid is an adjective, ) is shown as a correct form.

    Surely, we are *to be* paid not *to get* paid i.e. not to obtain paid in the infinitive? The correct construction would be ‘If I had gotton pay. . .” (a noun).

    Interestingly,’ to get (or have gotton) tall’ sounds as if it is correct usage: whereas, ‘to obtain tall’ does not. I think this may be because there is an implied noun not shown in there.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this.

    Thanks for a very useful site.

    • As we said in this blog, the word gotten is grammatically correct as a form of the participle when it is used with have or had to express a completed action in American English. The infinitive form is to get paid. Since our site represents American English rules, the example you cited from the If I Would Have vs. If I Had blog is grammatically correct.

  10. Karen T. says:

    I never knew that “gotten” was controversial! I am American, from the Midwest. Is it really appropriate to use “have got” when you could just use “have”?

    “Jack and Sue have a dog.” (They own a dog.)
    “Jack and Sue have got a dog.” (Still means “They own a dog,” but doesn’t seem quite right. Unnecessary extra word? Slightly more informal? Also sounds vaguely British to me.)
    “Jack and Sue got a dog.” (They obtained a dog, past tense.)
    “Jack and Sue have gotten a dog.” (They have obtained a dog, past participle.)

  11. Steve Mitchell Sr. says:

    Canadians smile when they hear Yanks say ” gotten “, and say ” gotten rhymes with boughten in the States, both rotten English.”

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. 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.”

  15. 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.”

  16. 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.

  17. 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?

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

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