Episode 122: August 1, 2008
by Bonnie Trenga
Today’s topic is whether the phrase “have got” is good English or not.
And now, guest-writer Bonnie Trenga answers an e-mail from a listener, Lee, who says, “A pet peeve of mine is the frequent use of the ‘have got’ phrase, such as ‘I have got a [something or other]’ or ‘I’ve got a [something or other],’ when ‘I have a [something or other]’ is completely sufficient.”
We all have phrases that bother us. I hate it when I see “It was a chill night” instead of “It was a chilly night.” Alas, I get all bent out of shape for no reason. Much as I dislike “chill” instead of “chilly,” there’s nothing wrong with it. Likewise, all four sources I consulted about the “have got” issue agree that this phrase is, in fact, good English.
The phrases “has got” and “have got” are somewhat informal and are often contracted, as in “He’s got” and “They’ve got.” Although this expression has long been criticized as an unnecessary substitution for the verb “to have,” it is perfectly idiomatic. It simply adds emphasis (1). In American English, “have got” is an intensive form of “have” (2). For example, if I say, “I’ve got a really big TV,” I’m placing more emphasis on my possession of the TV than if I say, “I have a really big TV.” If you say you haven’t got any money, you’re stressing the fact that you’re broke. Note that you can use “has got” or “have got” only in the present tense. If you want to talk in the past tense about your enormous TV, you would say, “I had a really big TV.” You would probably use expressive intonation to add emphasis.
American English Versus British English
How often you use “have got” instead of “have” depends on where you’re from. In American speech, “the form without ‘got’ is used more than in the UK” (3), so in other words, Americans tend to say, “have” and the British tend to say, “have got.” For example, according to The New Fowler's Modern English Usage*, in Britain, you’re more likely to hear the question “Have you got this book in stock?” whereas in America, “Do you have this book in stock?” would be more common (4). As I’ve said, it’s perfectly fine to say, “have got” if you’re in America, though it is less formal than plain old “have.” Even less formal than “have got”—and probably considered objectionable by most grammarians—is simply “got” by itself. You might have heard of the Spike Lee movie “He Got Game.” I don’t think Spike considered calling it “He Has Game.” “He got” is a very colloquial way of saying, “he has.”
“Have got” also has another meaning: to indicate necessity or obligation. Saying, “have got” is a little stronger than saying, “must” (5). So if I’m running late, I might tell my friend, “I have got to go now,” with the emphasis on the word “got.” And my friend might tell me, “You have got to stop being late so often.” When we’re speaking to friends, we might leave out the “have,” as in “I got to go now.” We might even say, “I gotta go now.” These two are considered colloquial English. You shouldn’t write these two sentences in a formal English essay. You can use “must” or “have to” instead.
This show was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at http://sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.
You can reach me, Grammar Girl, on Facebook or Twitter, or by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Note: Fowler's is a usage guide whose emphasis, particularly in the earlier editions, is on British English usage.
- Garner, B. Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2003, pp. 381-82.
- American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 208.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_and_British_English_differences. Accessed June 26, 2008.
- Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 352.
- American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 216.