Got Grammar?

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Got Grammar?

I am infuriated whenever I hear the TV ad for a local bank featuring actors smugly boasting, “We get you, and we got you!” Like that other simplistic phrase, “you do you,” this grammatical slap in the face seems to me to signal the dumbing down of our culture. But then I realize that this troubling usage is not at all new. It goes back at least as far as 1930, when George and Ira Gershwin wrote the song “I Got Rhythm” for the musical Girl Crazy and made famous by Ethel Merman. And what about Sonny and Cher’s 1965 mega-hit, “I Got You, Babe”? Not to mention the memorable 1990’s “Got milk?” ad campaign, featuring cute milk mustaches. 

“To get” is one of the most versatile, useful, and popular verbs in the English language. The number of transformations of “get” is truly astounding, as well as ever changing. Merriam-Webster lists no fewer than 19 definitions, plus 26 idiomatic uses such as “get a life” and “get over it.” “Get” can mean obtain, receive, earn, fetch, catch, prepare, annoy, cause, have, hear, understand, learn, leave, and on and on. In essence, it is a catch-all term that can be used to mean almost anything! “I got (earned) an A on the test!” Your child might brag, or “I just don’t get (understand) this math problem.” I might have a long list of things to get (fetch) at the store. You can get a joke, get a cold, or get a raise. “That movie always gets me!” is hard to translate: moves me? Touches me? Makes me laugh? As Halloween approaches, remember that the bogey man will get you if you don’t watch out! “Get” can even become a noun to mean offspring, or loot/reward, as in “what was his get from that deal?” Using “get” brings the formality of the communication down a notch, and suggests intimacy between the speaker and listener. 

This is all fine and good, but the misuse of the past participle of “to get”—got or gotten—has gotten out of hand. In the bank ad example above, “got” means “support;” in “I Got Rhythm,” it simply means have, but forever. And in “we get you,” it means understand. It is fine to use “got” for one of its basic meanings, such as “he got (caught) the measles,” “she got (obtained) a new bicycle,” or “by George, she’s got (understood) it!” But while everyone loves hip shorthand like “we got you” and “I got rhythm,” they really get to (annoy) me because they violate fundamental grammatical rules and model sloppy speech. 

The essential problem is that these examples employ (apparently unbeknownst to the writers) the present-perfect tense, which is used to indicate an action that occurred in the past but continues to the present. The use of the present-perfect tense requires the auxiliary verb to have with the past participle of the main verb. For example, the past participle of “to work” is “worked.” You might say “we worked for hours” if the work session was finite and concluded in the past, but if you are still working you would say “we have worked for hours”—indicating that the work continues into the present. “She has planned a delightful party” means that the party is currently underway or has not even happened yet. In other words, Gershwin really meant “I have rhythm,” or “I have got rhythm”—then, now, and always. Similarly, the bank ad example should read “We have got you”—we will take care of you now and on an ongoing basis. We all tend to forget these grammar rules we learned in school, but from your reading you should recognize the difference between correct and incorrect grammar.

The “Got milk?” slogan is also problematic. In English, you typically don’t form questions by using the past tense of a verb, e.g. “Wrote book?” What the milk industry is trying to say is, “Do you have any milk?” or “Have you got any milk?” But blessings on Dunkin’ Donuts, who advertises their Covid sanitation protocols with the slogan “We’ve got your back!” Scott Wagner’s Integrated Medicine also gets it right with its jingle, “Who’s got your back?” That apostrophe indicates a contraction of Who has got your back? Whole Foods, during the 2013 holiday season, also modelled good literacy skills with their ad, “We’ve got turkey, we’ve got green beans, we’ve got stuffing. We’ve got your back—and your sides.” Wink wink, nudge nudge!

I realize that advertising considers itself exempt from grammatical rules. In fact, breaking them is considered attention getting for that very reason. But these slogans model bad grammar, subject us to ugly expression and drive people like me crazy! I also realize that this battle was lost long ago, and it is probably time for me to get over it, get on with it, and let the language evolve and transform as it wants to, or as fits current needs. I have a happy memory of visiting Boutin’s restaurant and dance hall in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with locals joyfully dancing the two-step to live Cajun music by Lee Benoit. This was my first introduction to the delightful Hank Williams’ song, “Jambalaya” (1952): “Goodbye Joe, me got to go, me-o-my-o / me got to go pole the pirogue down the bayou….” This song always cheers me up, in spite—or maybe because—of its Cajun lingo and yes, incorrect grammar! 

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