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
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
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
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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