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What’s correct, “he had GOT some” or “he had GOTTEN some”?

Dear Cecil:

A question has been bothering me since the third grade: which is correct English — "He had got some" or "He had gotten some"?

Joseph M., Chicago

Cecil replies:

There’s still some ambiguity on this point. Using “gotten” as the past participle of “to get” will get you laughed out of every University Club in England, but it’s in common use in the U.S., if only in speech and informal writing. One could make the case, however — and believe me, I will — that the choice of two past participle forms allows for a wider range of meanings than is possible with comparatively impoverished British English.

First a bit of history. “Gotten” is actually the older form of the word, dating back to at least the fifteenth century. The King James translation of the Bible, published in 1611, prefers “gotten” to “got,” but it was written in a self-consciously grand, archaic style. Shakespeare, working at the same time, seems to have preferred “got,” which by then had become the colloquial style. The “got” vs. “gotten” battle raged throughout the 1600s, the colonists taking “gotten” with them to America, where it flourished, while the stay-at-homes eventually came down on the side of “got.” When Noah Webster, an advocate of simplifying the language, published his first American dictionary in 1864, he declared “gotten” to be “obsolescent,” but few paid strict attention.

In fact, I’d venture to say that today both forms are proper, in both formal and informal usages, depending on the context. Permit me to quote A.H. Marckwardt, author of American English (1958): “… most Americans regularly make a very precise distinction between got and gotten. ‘We’ve got ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that the funds are in our possession — we have them. ‘We have gotten ten thousand dollars for laboratory equipment,’ means that we have obtained or acquired this particular sum of money. Few Americans would have the slightest question about the difference in the meaning of these two sentences …” In other words, got means you obtained something in the indefinite past, and gotten means you recently acquired it. This seems like a useful distinction to be able to make, and therefore Cecil brazenly declares it proper for all purposes, public and private. If some fussbudget gives you a hard time about it, tell him (or her) he’ll have to answer to me.

Cecil Adams

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