Got or Gotten? How to Speak North American

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Someone should write a book on all the uses of “get” in the English language. This post is for a select audience of grammar-nerds and advanced English language learners already familiar with “get” in everyday speech. Sorry, but this is not where you are going to learn 500 new idiomatic phrases with “get.” I’m going to attempt to focus on when to use “got” and when to use “gotten.”

Got it?

Okay, let’s go!

Here’s the lowdown:

Most of those handy PDFs that list commonly used irregular verbs have two past participles listed for the verb “get.” Those past participles are “got” and “gotten.” Which one is correct?

Some lists break it down by classifying “got” as British English and “gotten” as American English, but that’s not helpful. In North America(US and Canada) we use both “got” and “gotten” and we use them for different things.

In the UK, “gotten” is not considered correct. For people in the US and Canada that is a really hard concept to grasp. It’s what we’re most likely to get wrong if we try to pass ourselves off as British It sounds weird to us. We use “gotten” as the past participle form of “get” when using the perfect tenses, as in these examples:

Bill hasn’t gotten a job yet although he’s been looking for months.

They still haven’t gotten back to me about that unpaid bill.

He hadn’t gotten my message about the party, so he didn’t come.

It should be noted that using “got” would not actually be wrong in any of these sentences, but most North Americans would choose “gotten.” It’s a standard usage, not slang, and not considered bad grammar.

However there are two important exceptions where we agree with the Brits and never use  “gotten.” The exceptions are:

  1. “have got”or “has got” in order to show possession where you could replace “have got” with “have.”Example: Bill has got two dogs.
  2. “have got to” or “has got to” to show urgency or need in place of “have to” or “has to.”Example: Becky has got to leave by three to get to her class on time.

That’s the short explanation. You can stop reading this now and get on with your day, or keep going.

Here’s the long take:

North American standard English uses “gotten” as the past participle form of “get” in the perfect tenses:

Has Hank graduated yet?

No he had to leave school for a while, so he still hasn’t gotten his degree.

In the above exchange, “completed,” “obtained,” or “finished” could be used in place of “gotten.” The meaning would still be the same. The words “yet” and “still” both indicate this is an action that has been started but not completed in the past, and therefore present perfect is the right tense.

Here are some more examples of “gotten” being used in the perfect tenses. Notice that in all these examples, if you take away the word “gotten,” you would need to use another verb in its place:

After three months at my new job, I’ve gotten very tired of my commute!

“Gotten” could be replaced by “become” or “grown.”

I had gotten my mother gloves for the past three years, but I was determined to find something different for her 80th birthday.

“Gotten” could be replaced by “given,” “bought,” etc.

She hasn’t gotten any emails or texts from him since he moved, so she’s worried.

“Gotten” could be replaced by “received”

If someone used “got” instead of “gotten” in the above examples, it might sound “off” to a North American, but it is not grammatically incorrect. It’s just not the way we say it – at least not most of us, most of the time although some of us may use “got” more often, and not in a “Madonna moves to England and starts trying to talk like a Brit” kind of way, but because language evolves and variation happens. I know that must be maddening for non-native speakers looking for rules. I’d like to tell you to just use “got” all the time and not adopt this Americanism, but that won’t work either, especially if you are trying to sound as much like a native-speaker as possible.

Therefore, what I’m attempting to do here is to help you understand (1) when we tend to use “gotten,” (2) when “gotten” is absolutely not used, (3) when there might be some alteration in meaning depending upon which past participle is used, and (4) what you are likely to hear in everyday conversation.

While “get” has many meanings that are understood by all English speakers, it is possible we use “get” more frequently in North America than in the UK, and that in the UK speakers are more likely to use other verbs in place of “get.”

US: I‘ve gotten used to him.

UK: I’ve got used to him OR I’ve grown used to him.

US: She’s gotten good at this.

UK: She’s got good at this. OR She’s become good at this.

Now let’s examine those cases where Yanks and Canadians always use “got” and never use “gotten” – just like the English do:

We use “have got” or “has got” to show possession.

Does Hank meet the qualifications for the position?

Yes, he has got a degree in engineering. OR Yes, he’s got a degree in engineering.

Notice that if you take away the word “got,” you would still have a complete sentence, and the meaning wouldn’t change.

Yes, he has a degree in engineering.

You would only use “gotten” here if you wished to emphasize that he recently completed or obtained the degree. For instance, if Hank applied previously, but didn’t get the job because he didn’t have the degree yet, then you might choose “gotten,” but  if you are simply stating that he “has” it,  you would not use “gotten.”

Let’s look at another example:

Do you have any pets? Notice that as in the previous example, the question is phrased in the present tense. We are more likely to ask the question that way although we might say, “Have you got any pets?”

Yes, I’ve got a dog.

Once again, if you take away the word “got” the sentence still makes sense:

Yes, I have a dog.  

The word “got” has been removed. The contraction has been replaced by the full word “have.” The meaning is just about the same.

We would NOT replace “got” with a different verb here like “obtain” although if you have a dog, it is literally true that at some point in the past you “obtained” that animal. The only purpose that “got” seems to serve is to emphasize the “having” of the thing. Here’s another example in context:

We need someone to drive the group to the meeting. Does anybody have a car?

Yes, I’ve got a car!

Let’s try looking at the negative form:

Do you have any pets?

No, I haven’t got any pets.

Notice that the negative contraction “haven’t” is used with “got.”. You could also say, No I have not got any pets. However, a native speaker would probably avoid the rhyming sound of “not” and “got” by using the contraction.

As with the previous example, you can leave out the word “got” and the sentence will have the same meaning:

Do you have any pets?

No, I don’t have any pets.

Notice “don’t have” is used instead of “haven’t.” If “have” is used alone we use “do not have” to form a negative. If “have” is used as a helping verb to form a perfect tense, we use “have not” to form a negative:

I don’t have eggs. (negative with “have” in simple present tense)

I haven’t had eggs. (negative with “have” in present perfect tense.)

Structurally, phrases with “have got” or “has got” to show possession appear to be in the present perfect tense, but they don’t always follow the rules for present perfect. They indicate ownership as a fact – a present tense characteristic, so it’s best to think of this form as an idiomatic expression that looks like present perfect but is actually present tense.

What kind of pet do you currently have?

I’ve got a dog.

We do not use this particular form in the past tense:

Did you have any pets last year?

No, I didn’t have any pets back then. OR Yes, I had a pet back then.

However, we could still use “had got” or more commonly in North America “had gotten” in the past perfect where “got” has a specific meaning:

Did you have any pets when you lived in Boston?

No, I hadn’t gotten my dog yet. I got him later, after I moved to Brooklyn.

Note that in the above example “got” could mean “obtained,” “found,” “adopted,” “bought,” etc. The past perfect tense is used in the first sentence to show that the events in Boston had already occurred before the speaker moved to Brooklyn. In the second sentence, “got” is used as the simple past tense form.

You might wonder why North Americans don’t just use “got” all the time like the Brits, so we wouldn’t have to think up rules for using a word that the people who invented the language don’t believe belongs in it.

Once upon a time, the Brits did use “gotten,” but at some point they dropped it, and we didn’t, and now they laugh at us.

Both North Americans and Brits use “have got to” or “has got to” in place of “have to” or has to.” We never use “gotten” in this form. In the column on the left there are some examples of this usage. In the column on the right, the word “got” is left out. There is not much difference in meaning between the two columns. Native speakers might say one or the other. “Got” might place a little more importance on the action that has to be done. The phrases on the left are likely to be spoken with contractions.

 

These forms are primarily used in the present tense. Watch what happens when the conversation switches to past tense:

I”m sorry I can’t stay and chat now. I’ve got to catch my bus.”  

I’m sorry I couldn’t stay and chat yesterday, but I had to catch my bus.”

We would NEVER use “I had got to catch my bus.”

Have you got anything to eat?

I’ve got pizza in the fridge.

I had pizza in the fridge, but I think we finished it.

While we never use “gotten to” to mean “got to” in the sense of “have to,” you might see or hear sentences like these:

At first, my father-in-law was a mystery to me, but I have gotten to know him well over the years.

I really appreciate the opportunities I’ve had at my job. I’ve gotten to travel around the world for work.

Charlie was terrible when he started piano lessons, but he’s gotten to be a decent player.

In each of these sentences if you took out “gotten” you’d need to replace it with a different verb or phrase:

I have come to know him well over the years.

I have had the opportunity to travel.

Charlie’s become a decent player.

In these examples, if you use “got to” rather than “gotten to,” the listener will understand from context that you didn’t mean “got to” in the sense of “have to.” However, there could still be some ambiguity. Therefore British speakers might be more likely to use different verbs or phrases.

To a North American speaker, the difference in meaning between the following two sentences is obvious:

a) Ana’s got a cat.

b) Ana’s gotten a cat.

Example (a) uses the expression “has got” to show possession. It means: Ana has a cat at this time.

Example (b) uses “gotten” as the past participle. “Gotten” could be replaced by another past participle with a similar meaning such as “found,” “bought,” “adopted,” etc. Because the sentence is in the present perfect, it indicates that the cat has probably arrived recently.

Let’s look at example (b) within the context of a conversation:

Mary: Have you seen Ana recently?

Sharon: No. I haven’t seen her since her divorce. Have you seen her?

Mary: I saw her last week. She’s gained twenty pounds, and she’s gotten a cat.

Sharon: How depressing!

Sometimes, even in North American English, there’s not much difference between “got” and “gotten.” Here is an example of three correct ways we might answer a question.

Has Ana found an apartment yet?

a) Yes, she got an apartment last week. (“Got” in simple past tense substituting for “found.”)

b) Yes, she’s got an apartment. She signed the lease last week. (“Has got” in place of “has.”)

c) Yes, she’s gotten an apartment already. She signed the lease last week. (“Has gotten” substitutes for “found” and is used in the present perfect form because the event is recently completed or still in progress.)

My British friends would probably think this is crazy. A valid argument could be made that the only difference between (b) and (c) is that North Americans are murdering the English language with archaic words like “gotten,” and the only correct choice is (b) since the question was asked using the present perfect tense, and the event may still be in progress or has recently finished.

The point is nobody speaks English like a textbook, so be aware that you’ll hear lots of variations, and they are not necessarily wrong or non-standard.

I hope you’ve gotten a good understanding of how we use “got” here in North America. Of course, we don’t all speak perfect English all the time. Sometimes people will say “got to” or “got a” without using “have” or “has.” To make matters worse, “got to” or “got a” will often sound like “gotta.”

Here’s an example:

Ana: That’s Mary over there. She’s gotta be the world’s biggest gossip. I can’t stand her! She started a rumor that I gained twenty pounds after my divorce. I gotta get outta here!

Sharon: Too late! She’s coming this way!

Mary: I heard you’ve been avoiding me, Ana. What’s wrong? You gotta problem with me?

This is NOT standard English. You should not use this form in a business email or a work text. You should avoid it on your job interview. However, this is an informal usage that you will hear people say. You may even (gasp) hear it from your English teacher on occasion.

It would not be the worst thing in the universe if you felt comfortable enough to use “gotta” once in a while.

Here are some common phrases you may hear with “gotta”:

I gotta get going. OR I’ve got to get going.

Meaning: I have to leave now. This is often what people say when they are trying to end a conversation on the street or a phone call or chat.. The implication is that the person has something else that he or she needs to do.

I gotta get outta here. OR I’ve got to get out of here.

This is used when it’s necessary to leave. It’s stronger then “I gotta get going.” Example: “Crowds make me panic. I can feel an attack coming on. I gotta get outta here!”

I gotta go to the bathroom! OR I’ve got to go to the bathroom!

This is a phrase often used though it is more polite to simply ask where the bathroom is, or just excuse oneself.

I gotta get something to eat! OR I’ve got to get something to eat!

We say this when we are with friends or people we are comfortable with and we are very hungry.

I got something to tell you! OR I’ve got something to tell you! OR I gotta tell you something!

Meaning: I have something important to say to you.

The Takeaway

The important takeaways are:

  1. The past participle of get is got or gotten.
  2. Always use “got” and never “gotten” to show possession with have or has.
  3. Always use “got” and never “gotten”with the expression “have/has got to” to mean “have/has to.”
  4. “Gotten” is used in North America as the past participle in other cases, but if you use “got,” it’s not wrong even if we think it sounds funny.

Now if you’re a glutton for punishment click here to practice using got, got to and gotten.

 

(This is the Perfect English-NYC blog. If you are interested in lessons, click here. If you want to thank Marion for providing this fascinating insight into the language, nothing says “Thank you” like buying someone’s books on Amazon!)

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