Aunt Ruth Gets Smart

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Oct 082014

“Clovis, these are great seats! Wow, front row behind the centerfield wall here at Grammar Park – this is the place to be! Boy oh boy, I hope someone hits a ball our way.”

Clovis, chewing on a mouthful of peanuts, merely nodded in agreement.

No sooner had the game begun than my wish was granted. The leadoff batter blasted the first pitch, sending a towering fly ball toward centerfield.

“I got it, I got it,” yelled the centerfielder in an unmistakably familiar voice.

“Aunt Ruth! You’re playing centerfield!” I blurted in astonishment. Clovis was so surprised that he choked and coughed. Peanuts shot out of his mouth like bullets from a Gatling gun.

Positioning herself beneath the still-high fly ball, Aunt Ruth retorted, “Thanks for reminding me, Rookie Relative. I almost forgot. Now, what can I do for you while I’m waiting for the ball to return to earth?”

“First of all,” I said, never one to miss an opportunity, “you can correct your claim to the ball.”

“Pardon?” she asked, before muttering under her breath, “I think I’m going to regret this.”

“The phrase, ‘I got it,’ is simply incorrect when used in the present tense. Yes, it’s common to hear it that way, but that doesn’t make it correct English.”

“Can we talk about something more pleasant, like the time you stapled your tongue to a giant windmill?”

“Uh, no. Look, Aunt Ruth, this isn’t too hard. Just bear with me.” I looked up. The ball was still hundreds of feet from the ground.

Her silence encouraged me, so I continued.

“In American English, the present tense is get, the past tense is got, and the past participle form is gotten or got, depending on meaning. Generally, Americans use gotten for the past participle when talking about ability or permission, and they use got for the past participle when talking about possession or ownership.  For example, today I get to go to a ballgame; yesterday I got to go to a ballgame; I have gotten to go to ballgames in the past. I have got a baseball at home that was autographed by Homer, the famous Greek slugger. Are you with me so far?”

“Uh huh,” she sighed.

“Before I go on, let me also point out that American English tends to use to get in ways that are totally, uh, foreign to some of the other English-speaking places on Earth.”

“For example?”

“For example, we use got to mean must. I got to be going. We use got to mean permission or capability. I got to go on stage and see Aunt Ruth at last night’s rock concert. We even use got to mean have got. Yes sir, I got one big, old, mean, tough aunt.”

“In British English—“

“You mean English English?” she asked.

“Uh, I guess so. In English English, the present, past, and past participle words are get, got, and got, respectively. The meaning of to get is much more restrictive than you will find in America. To get is pretty much confined to meaning to receive or to obtain. I get strawberries and cream for lunch today. I got strawberries and cream for lunch yesterday. I believe I have got strawberries and cream in the larder; would you care to join me for an afternoon snack?”

“The Brits don’t use gotten?” she asked with an incredulous look on her face.

“That’s right.”

“At all?”

“Well, they have words like begotten, forgotten, and ill-gotten, but they don’t use gotten by itself, unless of course they’ve picked up an Americanism.”

“You got to be kidding.”

“The British would say that ‘you got’ is not correct.”

“You have got to be kidding?” tried Aunt Ruth.

“Technically, that’s not correct either, because the British don’t generally use forms of to get to mean must.  Now, well respected writers have been using that phrase for the past 400 years or so, but even current grammarians will admit that one shouldn’t overuse ‘have got’ or ‘has got’ because it gets tiresome. One suggestion often heard is to elide the phrase have got so that it comes out as I’ve got or you’ve got.” That just sounds less awkward. But really, what’s wrong with just saying, ‘You have to be kidding’?”

“Why is the distinction important? Why do we care if Americans do it one way and the British another?”

“I am merely putting a stake in the ground and saying there is a right way of using to get and there is the American way that deviates from the norm. I am not saying that we shouldn’t use the American way, but I want to make it clear what is proper or not proper in formal writing. “

“Oh brother…” sighed Aunt Ruth.

Nonplussed, I continued. “There may come a time when you need to make a presentation at a formal conference or have High Tea with the Queen of England, and you want to be sure to speak or write correctly and accurately.”

I glanced up. The ball was now just dozens of feet from Aunt Ruth’s head.

I yelled, “Get it!”

She caught the ball and shouted, “Got it!”

Clovis clapped his hands and cheered, “Good!”