Column: Get away from gotten


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Can something sound wrong, but actually be right? Take, for instance, French fries dipped in a Wendy’s Frosty. This combination shouldn’t be good, but it’s actually a dollar menu match made in heaven. There’s something indelibly delicious about the salty, slightly crispy potato strips when they fuse with the frozen soft-serve sweetness of the Frosty. Believe me, Wendy’s isn’t paying me as some kind of a grammar columnist/cultural influencer (although, I’d happily accept tall stacks of its fine Frosty money). Fries dipped in a Frosty sounds wrong — but it’s so right.

What’s the grammar equivalent of the Frosty-French fry connection? How about the word “gotten?” You probably use it and simultaneously think, wait, that can’t be right — can it? Let’s explore.

I’ll clear this up right away: British English doesn’t use “gotten;” instead, it uses “got” as the past participle of “get.” The British also call “French fries” “chips” and drive on the wrong side of the road. I suppose you can’t be right all the time.

“What is a past participle?” some may ask. Let’s have a quick refresher. A past participle is one of the four principle parts of a verb. It usually signifies an action that has been completed. With regular verbs, simply add had, have or has before the verb and -ed to the end to get your past participle. Examples include “have played,” “had closed” and “has purchased.” However, many verbs are irregular; get is one of these irregular verbs (and adding fiber to its diet hasn’t changed a thing).

The present tense of get is “get.” Get’s past tense is “got.” In American English, the past participle of get is (have) “gotten.” You would be correct to say, “I have gotten lazy in studying my Eastern European capitals lately.” Consider another example: I have gotten many angry emails from red pen-toting grammar purists lately. Even though it may sound wrong, it’s technically correct grammar to use “gotten” with a companion word like have, has, or had. That doesn’t mean I like it.

No, I don’t like “gotten.” Instead, I encourage you to use nicer-sounding words like “become” or “grown” in the first above example or “obtained” or “received” in the second example. When you read Grammar Guy next week, I hope to write something like: This columnist has received a lifetime endorsement deal from Wendy’s; after all, sometimes the most unlikely combinations turn out to be perfect partnerships.