Alex Massie

Got vs Gotten

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I knew someone would call me out on this. And sure enough, commenting on this post, faithful reader Sam G writes:

First paragraph: "gotten"? O tempora, O Mores indeed.

To which I say: hooey. To begin with, there's much to be said for the vigour of American English. Plus, as you know, gotten is merely an ancient form that, though out of fashion in the old country, was preserved in the new world. As is so often the case, we turn to the Sage of Baltimore for guidance. Here's Mencken:

Whatever the true cause of the substitution of the preterite for the perfect participle, it seems to be a tendency inherent in English, and during the age of Elizabeth it showed itself even in the most formal speech. An examination of any play of Shakespeare’s will show many such forms as “I have wrote.” “I am mistook” and “he has rode.” In several cases this transfer for the preterite has survived. “I have stood,” for example, is now perfectly correct English, but before 1550 the form was “I have stonden.” To hold and to sit belong to the same class; their original perfect participles were not held and sat, but holden and sitten. These survived the movement toward the formalization of the language which began with the eighteenth century, but scores of other such misplaced preterites were driven out. One of the last to go was wrote, which persisted until near the end of the century. Paradoxically enough, the very purists who performed the purging showed a preference for got (though not forgot), and it survives in correct English today in the preterite-present form, as in “I have got,” whereas in American, both vulgar and polite, the elder and more regular gotten is often used. In the polite speech gotten indicates a distinction between a completed action and a continuing action—between obtaining and possessing. “I have gotten what I came for” is correct, and so is “I have got a house.” In the vulgar speech much the same distinction exists, but the perfect becomes a sort of simple tense by the elision of have. Thus the two sentences change to “I gotten what I come for” and “I got a house,” the latter being understood, not as past, but as present.

Case closed.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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