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To get or not to get

Colin HARRIS

The question is, should we use the verb ‘get’ or are there good reasons for avoiding it?

According to the British National Corpus, ‘get’ is the fourth most common verb in British speech and the tenth in writing, so if you have managed to improve your English to native speaker level, shouldn’t you be reflecting this distribution in your pattern of speech and writing?

Consider its versatility: it combines with most grammatical classes: ‘get a degree’, ‘get up in the morning’, ‘get ready’, ‘get on the bus’ and ‘get going’. It can be causative: ‘get her a present’, ‘get them up’, ‘get him ready’, ‘get it in the car’, ‘get the students working’. Then, it’s used extensively for possession and physical attributes: ‘she’s got a beautiful smile’. And it’s almost achieved auxiliary verb status through passive constructions: ‘he got accepted’, not to mention a panoply of idioms.

‘Get’ is clearly the superpower of verbs. So why the reluctance to use it?

What about its pedigree?

Well, according to the OED, ‘get’ first appeared in an English text around 1200 (The Ormulum). From then on, it occurs regularly: 41 times in Wycliffe’s Bible (c. 1395) and about 300 times in the works of Shakespeare. Its meaning evolved from active obtaining to passive obtaining (i.e. receiving) and then on to locative uses, eg. Hamlet’s famous “get thee to a nunnery” line, and so on. Over the centuries it has come to prove itself a most authentic English verb.

Is it too complicated for non-native speakers?

When using a foreign language, we tend to stick to the verbs which are similar in our own language. But ‘get’ has no equivalent in many other languages (Viberg, 2002). This incompatibility renders it difficult for non-native speakers to master.

What does it really mean?

You may have wondered what ‘get’ actually means in a lot of constructions; it usually isn’t ‘obtain’! Well, to give you a clue, I would suggest focussing on change. The value of ‘get’ often indicates ‘the emergence of a new state’ (Gronemeyer, 1999). And the nature of this new state (possession, position, condition or process) is inferred by the choice of arguments and the context. (Another article might be required to explain this better!). Anyway, once the mechanism has been acquired, using it requires less brain power than seeking alternative verbs.

Is it appropriate for scholarly works?

So, assuming that you manage to master ‘get’ (which is a good idea), the question remains: is it suitable for scholarly works? Well, since meaning is inferred by its arguments and the context, this fundamentally detracts from its performance as a precise lexeme for literary or scientific use.

Conclusion

The popularity of ‘get’ lies in its requiring minimum effort for those who master its mechanism. Since ‘get’ is one of the most common verbs in English, it’s worth getting to grips with it. However, it has poor semantic content, lacks explicitness and so, for precise and scholarly writing, it should probably be used sparingly.

Bibliography

The British National Corpus. version 3 (BNC XML Edition). 2007. Web 1 May 2016

« get, v. » OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 30 December 2016.

Gronemeyer, Claire. “On deriving complex polysemy: The grammaticalization of get.”

English Language and Linguistics 3.1 (1999): 1-39. Print.

Noble, Terry, John Wycliffe, and John Purvey. Wycliffe’s Bible: comprising of Wycliffe’s Old Testament and Wycliffe’s New Testament (revised edition). Vancouver: Terence P. Noble, 2012. Print.

The Ormulum. Ed., Robert Meadows White. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1852. Web 18 May 2016.

Viberg, Åke. “Basic verbs in second language acquisition”. Revue française de linguistique appliquée. 2 Vol. VII (2002): 61 à 79. Print