The Teacher Who Condemned 'Got'

I never used to believe in ghosts. The idea of hauntings sounded ridiculous to me. Then I started writing about grammar. Now I know better.

For more than a decade now, I’ve been hearing bone-chilling tales of undead teachers haunting former students from the great beyond with bad information: You can’t end a sentence with a preposition. You can't use healthy to mean healthful. You can't start a sentence with but.

The stubborn persistence of these bad teachings never ceases to amaze me. But from time to time these chilling tales go beyond the pale, wowing me with just how bad bad information can be.

Case in point, an e-mail I got recently:

Dear June. Today, in your column from the Pasadena Sun section of the L.A. Times, you used "the writer got bogged down." I will never forget several teachers, including one particularly memorable Mrs. Hamilton, telling me that using "got" in any sentence anytime was simply being lazy, that it was bad English, uncouth, uneducated, etc. You get the point.

Yup, there was once a teacher who took it upon herself to single-handedly condemn a well established and highly useful word. I particularly like that “uneducated” part -- and the irony of how it came from someone who needed only to open a dictionary to see that she was misinforming her own students. Of course, I didn’t say so to the poor guy in so many words. Instead, here’s what I wrote: 

The most common objection to got is that have and got are redundant in phrases like "I have got quite a few friends." Yes, it's inefficient, but it's accepted as an idiom. Every major language authority I know of agrees it's a valid option. 

We editors usually trim the gots out. Especially in news writing, which prizes efficiency, "He has got $20'" is a poor alternative to "He has $20." But that's an aesthetic. Not a grammar rule.

 From what you're saying, your teacher was condemning the word got in all its uses. And, yes, that's extreme to the point of being illogical. Got is the past tense of get, which can be both a regular verb and an auxiliary verb: "They got married."

It sounds as though Mrs. Hamilton would have everyone say, "They were married." But if so, that's just a personal preference she was trying to pass off as a rule. There isn't a dictionary under the sun that would back her up.

"I hear a lot of stories about teachers who used to lay down laws that weren't laws. (It's wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. It's wrong to split an infinitive. It's wrong to begin a sentence with and.) These kinds of unfounded prohibitions were very fashionable in educational circles for a while. But they never were rules. It's unfortunate kids got so much bad information.

 Hope that helps! - June


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