Daily Archives: May 12, 2010


Should gotten be shotten, forgone and forgotten? Cast to the side like a thing that is rotten? Left on the shelf like a trinket unboughten?

Understand, first of all, that this is not a note on get. Get over that right off. I don’t have the time to write, and you don’t have the time to read, a tasting of that word – it simply gets around far too much. Perhaps sometime when I can get around to it I will write a little operetta about it or something. Now watch me get carried away…

Anyway, gotten is – or isn’t, depending on whom you ask – the past participle of get. (Those who say it is not say it is got.) It displays very nicely a feature of English phonology – a feature that, while not universal (and sometimes considered a mark of a casual pronunciation), is so common I have heard the Queen herself doing it: in any word ending with unstressed tten or ttonmitten, kitten, button, rotten, flatten, and on and on – instead of releasing the /t/ and saying a vowel (a schwa) before the /n/, we simply hold the tongue in place, lower the velum (opening the nasal passage) and say a syllabic [n]. (If we’re really being lazy, we don’t quite touch the tongue, and the sequence becomes a glottal stop followed by a narrow nasal vowel.) If we wish to emphasize the word and articulate it fully, we will of course release the /t/ and so on, but otherwise, the principle of economy of effort gets the upper hand.

So, then, why would not the principle of economy of effort also have gotten the upper hand with the past participle of get? Well, why should it? Past participles in en are quite normal in English. And indeed the en suffix is quite time honoured for this verb too. Getten was actually the first version, and could be seen up to the 16th century; Oxford tells me it’s still common in Yorkshire. But the ablaut series (the vowel moves down and back: drink – drank – drunk, for instance) exerted its influence in the Middle English ages, so that we had get – gat – gotten (which we still get in beget – begat – begotten) in place and taking over by the start of the Early Modern English period (16th century). Then gat shifted to got by influence of gotten. And then, in some versions of English, epsecially in England, it gradually took over altogether, except in some idiomatic forms. It would seem that gotten – with its two crosses in the middle – was double-crossed and gone. And so some people, on the basis of this British desuetude, believe it universally wrong. But it persists in North America – persists and is correct even in the most formal English in North America (except in the eyes of those few  who have decided it should not be).

Well, if the British can do without it, why can’t we? Are we just out of our gotten-pickin’ minds?  Well, heck, other people don’t have a chef’s knife, a carving knife, and a filet knife in their kitchens, but I can tell you there are things I can do with each of them that I can’t do as well with either of the others. So too with get, got, gotten. It is even possible to allow a contrast between got and gotten as past participle when you use have got where one could use have: I have got to see her etchings versus I have gotten to see her etchings, the former signifying need or desire and the latter signifying past attainment. The former could be said I have to see her etchings, but it loses the punchy emphasis. And the existence of the have got usage, even if you do not use it yourself, in fact necessitates gotten for clarity in many such situations, especially given that the have auxiliary may become aurally indiscernible in some contexts: We got it versus We’ve got it – clearly We’ve gotten it removes the ambiguity.

In any event, gotten has history and analogical patterns on its side, so just because it’s gotten disused in England doesn’t mean it’s somehow ill-gotten or misbegotten. It was good enough for Samuel Johnson (“If the money with which he retired was all gotten by himself”); it was good enough for Thomas Hobbes (“Reason is not . . . gotten by experience only”); it was good enough for David Hume (“The duke of Parma, who had gotten intelligence of their approach”); I really do think it’s gotten its place in the language quite honestly. We’ve gotten away with it this long. And let us hear none of that “Well, the Brits should know, it’s their language”; it’s our language too – my ancestors spoke it as surely as theirs did, and we’ve preserved some things that they’ve changed. Why would they get to set the fashion all the time?

Thanks to Jim Taylor for requesting gotten.