The Haves and the Have Gots

In a recent post we bemoaned the widespread overuse of surreal: “Why keep regurgitating surreal when something atypical happens—is that all you’ve got?” A reader found the sentence objectionable: “Really? ‘is that all you’ve got?’ How about ‘all you have’?”

His email insinuated that “all you’ve got” is unacceptable English. Many grammar mavens down through the years have challenged the legitimacy of have got, claiming that the phrase is no more than an ungainly and protracted way of saying have.

But we see an appreciable difference between is that all you’ve got? and is that all you have? Our sentence was meant to convey exasperation—is that all you have? just doesn’t work there. It sounds too dainty.

All you’ve got is good idiomatic English. “Love life. Engage in it. Give it all you’ve got,” wrote the poet Maya Angelou. Does anyone think that changing the last sentence to Give it all you have would be an improvement?

Our emailer will be heartened to learn that an anonymous eighteenth-century grammarian (quoted by Eric Partridge) agreed with him: “It may, therefore, be advanced as a general Rule,—when Possession is implied, it is vulgar to use HAVE in Construction with GOT.”

But today this “general Rule” seems to have gone the way of promiscuous capitalization and commas before long dashes. We consulted our reference library and came up with the following:

Have got has been used … in literary English for more than four hundred years … It is found in the writings of Scott, Austen, Thackeray, Dickens, Morris, Ruskin, Carlyle, and most of the great nineteenth century English authors.” —Bergen and Cornelia Evans, 1957

“The words have got, as in ‘I have got a really good car,’ have long been put down by schoolmaster sticklers as an error, but most authorities agree that it is not.” —Theodore M. Bernstein, 1977

“The phrase have got—often contracted (as in I’ve got)—has long been criticized as unnecessary for have. In fact, though, the phrasing with got adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.” —Bryan A. Garner, 1998

“It’s idiomatic, standard, and especially common when special emphasis is intended … No modern authority with a reputation to lose cares if you use have got for have or must, and you needn’t waste your own energy worrying about it either.” —Charles Harrington Elster, 2005

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10 Comments on The Haves and the Have Gots

10 responses to “The Haves and the Have Gots”

  1. Fly says:

    Could I have an explanation about this expression?
    When can we use “to have got to…” in the meaning of “to have to… “(= Must)? That is, in which tenses? And is it possible the contract form for “to have”?
    Thank you.

    • The phrase “have got to” is idiomatic in that it is an American colloquialism meant to convey extra urgency in the present tense, as in “We have got to go now” and “She has got to go now.” Such
      expressions could also be contracted to “We’ve got to go now” and “She’s got to go now.”

      The phrase would not be used or conjugated in any other tenses but the present.

  2. Shibu i G says:

    which is correct

    He doesnot has or have

  3. Gary O. says:

    Thank you for this important post. The mavens need to be reminded of the errors of their ways. Amon Shea’s Bad English is a great example how our thinking we know what’s correct can be so wrong sometimes.

  4. rich says:

    i recently took your quiz that contained the following question:

    10. He _____ to try harder from now on.

    A) got
    B) has got
    C) have got

    None of these answers are correct. The correct answer is “has.” Keep in mind that, regardless of colloquial use, “got” is the past tense of “get,” which means to acquire or obtain something. i know that questions can have more than one right answer, but none of those answers are adequate compared to simply using “has.”

    • Like it or not, has got is grammatically correct, especially when special emphasis is intended. “He has got to try harder from now on,” implies urgency that “He has to try harder from now on,” does not.

  5. glenda says:

    So, I suppose “where you’re at” is OK, too, because it seems everyone uses it now! The only reason “got” is thought to be OK, in my opinion, is because the “g” has a hard sound. And that makes it more powerful? Really, what has happened to the English language?????

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