'I got to go'?

“My wife and I cringe at the use of … ‘got’ in daily language: ‘I’m late. I got to go!’ Don’t I have to go?” Grant in Orange County, asked in an email. “Is there a separate usage for ‘have’ and ‘got’? I’m so confused.”

When a reader tells me something makes them cringe, I cringe. The reason: Their peeves usually put me in the awkward position of having to tell them they’re wrong. If a word or phrase is so common that you’ve developed a conditioned response to it, that means that it’s probably standard usage — and therefore acceptable.

Not so with “I got to go.” I scoured my reference books to find a justification for this phrasing and came up empty-handed. None of my usage guides say it’s OK. And according to dictionaries, “got” — the past tense of “get” — doesn’t mean “must” or “have to.” So “I got to go” isn’t a dictionary-sanctioned way of saying “I have to go” or “I must go.”

The best excuse I can find for this use of “got” comes from me personally: When people say, “I got to go,” I assume they’re saying “I’ve” instead of “I” and just glossing over the “ve.” That would be fine because “I’ve got to go,” a contracted form of “I have got to go,” uses “have got” as an idiom meaning “have,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and it’s “used in present tense situations usually in informal writing and in ordinary speech.”

“Idiom” is the key word here. It means that a construction that’s not grammatical is still OK because it’s standard. But when you want your English to be better than just OK, you should eschew “I have got” and stick with the simpler and 100% grammatical “I have.”

But “I got” isn’t always wrong. When you mean the verb “get” in the past tense, “I got” is correct. I got promoted. I got a raise. I got a parking ticket. It’s only wrong(ish) in cases where you’re using “got” like an auxiliary verb — especially to introduce an infinitive verb like “to go.” Here's the full story in my recent column.

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