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December 31st, 2003

I got vs. I have / arguably, unarguably, and inarguably

by Barbara Wallraff

Bill Moriarty, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., writes, “When is it correct to say ‘I got it!’ and when is it correct to say ‘I have it!’?”

A superstition clings to “get” and its past tense, “got,” that they are lowbrow words—but they aren’t always. Consider the now famous announcement made on December 14 by L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, about Saddam Hussein: “Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.”

Dictionaries give dozens of standard (as opposed to slang or informal or otherwise lowbrow) meanings for “get,” including “to catch; capture; gain hold of.” That’s what Paul Bremer meant, so his “got” was fine. In fact, I was delighted to hear him tell us the big news in plain English. Then the officials at the press conference began saying bureaucratic-sounding things like “We continue to process Saddam at this point in time,” and it was back to jargon as usual.
Some other uses of “got” are indeed lowbrow. In particular, it’s bad form to use “got” to mean “have.” You shouldn’t say “We got him in custody now,” for instance. Nor should you say “I got it” when you mean “I have it now.” And there is the difference between your two example sentences.

What about “I have got it” or “I’ve got it” instead of “I have it”? Respected authorities disagree about whether “have got” is excessively informal. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style says, “The colloquial ‘have got’ for ‘have’ should not be used in writing.” The Elements of Style is a much-beloved book, but here, I’m afraid, it is showing its age. These days “have got” appears in good-quality U.S. news sources thousands of times a month. I’d like to think that Strunk and White, if they were writing their book now, would take the same point of view as more recent usage guides do. These tend to say that “have got” is perfectly acceptable usage.

Joyce Seip, of Sigourney, Iowa, writes, “What do ‘arguably’ and ‘unarguably’ or ‘inarguably’ mean?”

When people say that something is “arguably” a good idea, they mean they’d be willing to argue in favor of it. But if they say something is “only arguably” a good idea, that means they’d argue against it. This may seem like awfully unruly behavior on the part of a word, but “arguably” is not alone in acting this way. “This is potentially a good idea” expresses hope that the idea is a good one, while “This is only potentially a good idea” is more doubtful, suggesting that problems must be solved if the idea is to realize its potential. The same goes for “Maybe this is the best idea yet” and “Only maybe is this the best idea yet.”

As for “unarguably” and “inarguably,” these two words share one meaning: “beyond all doubt or possibility of argument.” “Inarguably” is the form that’s more commonly seen in print, but both words are in good use.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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