<< back to the archive list

July 16th, 2008

Got and gotten / more on cupsful / issues and problems

by Barbara Wallraff

Louise Simmons, of Chatham, N.Y., writes: “Surely ‘got’ is correct for the past tense, not ‘gotten’?”

Dear Louise: For the simple past tense of “get,” yes -- as in, “I got you a coffee.” But “gotten” has its legitimate place. It’s a past participle. “Got” can be one too, though we tend to use the two forms in different ways. Consider “I’ve gotten coffee for both of us”and “I’ve got milk if you’d like some.” Both of these sentences are perfectly correct and normal in North American English. (The British sometimes use “got” when we might not.) The rough and ready rule is that “gotten” describes a process: “I’ve gotten coffee” means that I went out and got it. “Got” is more likely to refer to current possession: “I’ve got milk” means I have it.

I know that somebody is going to write to complain that “I’ve got” is an ignorant-sounding waste of words, for which the correct substitute is “I have.” I’ve heard that before! Please note that we tend to say “I’ve got,” not “I have got” -- and “I’ve got” uses no more syllables and no more words on the page than “I have.” Also, “I’ve got” is more emphatic. “I have” isn’t wrong, but sometimes “I’ve got” is just as good -- or better. For instance, who would ever say, “Aha -- I have you!” instead of “Gotcha!”?

Sandra Maisano Shargabian, of Rochester Hills, Mich., writes: “I have to take exception to a recent response of yours. You told a reader that she may have ‘misremembered’ the rule about ‘cupsful’ vs. ‘cupfuls.’ I know I did not misremember the rule, and I remember it as your previous correspondent remembers: ‘cupsful,’ not ‘cupfuls.’ The source was our grammar book of the early 1950s. Perhaps the rule has changed by now, but your reader’s recollection was correct.”

Dear Sandra: Huh. You may well be right, and half-century-old grammar books aren’t the bastions of tradition I supposed. The dictionaries I have from 1934 and 1958 specify that the plural of “cupful” is “cupfuls.” But Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961, gives “cupsful” as a less common alternative, and so does its offspring, the current Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. These two dictionaries are relatively permissive. They consider it their mission to record how we use the language, rather than advising us how we should. It looks as if your grammar book may have taken the same point of view. But “cupsful” has never caught on, and most recent dictionaries give only one plural: “cupfuls.”

Robert Last, of Cleveland, writes: “The word ‘issue’ seems to be used increasingly in place of the word ‘problem.’ What is your opinion of this trend? It drives me nuts!”

Dear Robert: I feel the same way you do. I think part of our, ahem, problem with this use of the word is that it started as psychobabble, meant to be less judgmental than words like “problems” and “trouble.” But when the person actually is making a judgment, it comes out sounding silly or prissy. I mean, in “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” Samuel L. Jackson didn’t say, “You got issues with that?” He said, “You got a problem with that?”

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

<< back to the archive list