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From The Editors' Association of Canada

A Misbegotten Myth

By Dyanne Rivers


Some years ago, while editing a college-level grammar textbook for ESL students, I found myself in hand-to-hand combat with the author over the use of gotten. British-born and -educated, she had flagged this past participle of get as substandard usage. In her view, got was the only acceptable past form.

I disagreed, though I wasn't surprised by her stand. This wasn't the first time I had encountered this attitude toward gotten. Like split infinitives and dangling prepositions, gotten is unfairly - and unnecessarily - condemned by some English speakers. Its use is particularly frowned on in the United Kingdom, where, like the author I was dealing with, some people mistakenly believe that it is incorrect.

This is odd, because at one time, gotten and got were equally common in British English. Indeed, the -en past-participle ending is a time-honoured Old English form that continues to exist in words such as proven, broken, bitten, stolen and known.

Nevertheless, by the seventeenth century, got was starting to prevail in Britain. By then, however, British colonists had begun to arrive in North America - and had brought gotten with them. Though the word was gradually falling out of favour in Britain, its use in North America remained vibrant, and both Canadian and American usage commentators maintain that it's perfectly acceptable, especially in informal contexts.

But why did gotten fall from grace in Britain? The reasons are obscure. The 1965 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, for example, labelled the word "archaic and affected." Is it possible that this comment morphed into the popular myth that gotten is substandard, even vulgar?

No matter. This attitude is changing, and nothing indicates this more vividly than the latest version of the venerable Fowler, which has pulled in its horns on the use of gotten. It says, "Nothing points more clearly to the North Americanness of a person than the ability to use the [past participle] forms got and gotten in a natural manner." It goes on to acknowledge that the British aversion to gotten is curious, especially when begotten, forgotten and ill-gotten - words derived from the same root - remain firmly rooted in the everyday vocabulary of British people.

But what is this North American ability to use got and gotten in a "natural manner"? Here, Fowler is referring to the distinction in meaning between the two words, for they are not synonyms in North America. If I say, "I've got a computer," I mean that I have a computer in my possession. But if I say, "I've gotten a computer," I mean that I have obtained or acquired a computer. For North Americans, making this distinction in meaning is instinctive.

North Americans also tend to use gotten when they want to indicate a progression. In these cases, it is often used as synonym for become. I might say, for example, "I've gotten used to doing exercises every morning," whereas someone raised in the U.K. is more likely to say, "I've got used to doing exercises every morning."

My defence of "gotten" doesn't mean that I endorse this word wholeheartedly. In fact, I have the same reservations about it as I do about get. These reservations have nothing to do with the correctness of get; it is perfectly good English. Rather, they have to do with the overuse of this word, which has become ubiquitous. Listen to any news broadcast and you'll hear get used over and over in situations where smoother and more serviceable word choices would convey the meaning far more energetically and precisely. In these situations, using get amounts to a kind of linguistic sloth, a reluctance to stretch the imagination and reach for a more polished word.

But I digress. The fact remains that gotten has definitely gotten a bad rap and should never be unthinkingly eliminated in favour of got.

And for those who are wondering about the upshot of my debate with the British-born author, not only did she agree to drop the note about gotten, but also our time in opposing trenches forged a bond that remains strong to this day.

Dyanne Rivers is a freelance editor and a member of the Toronto branch of the Editors' Association of Canada. This article was adapted from a usage column she writes for the association's national newsletter. For more information about the Editors' Association of Canada, please see their listing in this issue of Sources.



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