Have Got : Part One

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that have got is a strange form of the verb have with a meaningless word (got) added on. It’s not. Have got is the present perfect of the verb get.

1. What does get mean?

The meaning of get was discussed in a previous article Getting to Grips with Get. If you’ve not read it before, or don’t remember much about it, read it again now, as its arguments are crucial to understanding the meaning of have got.

In general though, I argued that the verb get is used to describe a change. This may be :

a) a change in position :
He got into the car; The train gets to Rome at 11.

b) a change in state : We got married in 1989; I’m going to get angry in a moment.

c) a change in possession : I got an E-mail from John yesterday; Can you go to the shops and get some milk. Get here has the general meaning of obtain, and may be used to replace more precise verbs such as buy, fetch, borrow, receive, steal etc: So :

Go to the supermarket and get some milk (get = buy)
I got a bike for my birthday (get = receive as a present)
The burglars didn’t get anything very valuable (get = steal)

2. What does the present perfect mean?

In English, the present perfect is formed with the auxiliary verb have plus the past participle. One of its uses (the others are not relevant here) is to describe the present result of a past event. For example :

Oh no! I’ve cut my finger! (Present result = My finger is bleeding now)
The taxi has arrived (Present result = The taxi is here now)
John has broken his arm. (Present result = His arm is broken now)

3. So what does I’ve got mean ?

Have got can be used with any of the meanings of get listed above with the meaning of present result of a past event :

a) Change of position : Has David got out of the bath yet? (= Is he out of the bath yet?)
b) Change of state (“become”) : It’s got much colder recently ( = It’s much colder now than before)

but here we are most concerned with :

c) Change of possession (“obtain”) : I’ve got a new car.

The literal meaning of I’ve got a new car is therefore I have “obtained” a new car – ie bought or received it as a present.

If you have “obtained” something, then the present result is that you now possess that thing. So :

I’ve got a new car = I possess a new car

Another verb with the same meaning as possess is have. So :

I’ve got a new car = I possess a new car = I have a new car

4. Grammatical Implications

If have got is an ordinary present perfect verb, this means that the main verb in the expression is got (past participle of get) and have is simply the auxiliary, with no meaning of its own. In English, it is the auxiliary verb which is used to form the negative and the interrogative. So :

Aff : I’ve got a new car. Neg : I haven’t got a new car. Int :
Have you got a new car?

On the other hand, in the sentence I have a new car, have (meaning possess) is the main verb. Main verbs cannot form the negative or interrogative in English, and in the simple form (when there is no auxiliary already in the sentence) need to add the empty auxiliary do :

Aff : I have a new car. Neg : I don’t have a new car. Int :
Do you have a new car?

The only standard exception to this is the verb BE, which follows the rule for auxiliary verbs even when it is a main verb.

Similarly, it is generally only auxiliary verbs which can form contractions in English – again the one standard exception being the verb BE.

The verb have is sometimes an exception to these rules, however. Some native speakers, especially in certain regions or of the older generation, do regularly form the interrogative and negative of have as a main verb as if it were an auxiliary. The novelist PD James is a good example. Here are some sentences from one of her novels, Death in Holy Orders :

I’ve a bit of a conscience about Ronald / Had he anything else to say? / As far as I know he hadn’t a key. / We’ve our own black cloaks / I haven’t the time to go asking around

In particular the contracted form is commonly used in various “set phrases” such as I’ve no idea or I’ve a feeling that … These are however exceptions to the general rule.

How does this relate to expressions such as I've got two sisters or She's got red hair? And how can you best present the use of have got in the classroom? We'll look at these issues in the next part of this article.

Photo provided by Jonnyalive under Creative Commons Licence via flickr


Anonymous said...

If "have got" is present perfect, then why doesn't it use the past participle of "to get," which is "gotten"? And why do others say that "have got" is not, in spite of its appearance, present perfect? I am trying to figure out "have got," and I can't seem to find anything that defines the construction, or defines it consistently.

Sue Swift said...

"Gotten" is a purely American variant of the past participle - it doesn't exist at all in British English. American uses gotten in literal contexts of change (see the previous article, Getting to Grips with Get) -

Possession - They've gotten a new car (= acquired)

State - They've gotten interested in the project (= become)

Position - He's gotten off the chair (= moved)

but uses the alternative participle "got" for the more metaphorical extensions of possession - eg, He's got brown hair.

For British English on the other hand the forms are get, got, got in all contexts.

This actually allows American to make more subtle distinctions than British English. For example, in American English -
They've gotten the answer = They've figured out the answer, (= acquired literally) while They've got the answer = They possess the answer . British English can't do that as both meanings are expressed by the participle got.

As to why others say it's not present perfect - unfortunately English grammar is mired in inaccurate labels and explanations. Verb forms are referred to as present, past or future when they're not, as "tenses" when they're not etc etc.

Anonymous said...

Sue Swift,
Thanks for the thorough explanation / response. In reviewing my grammar book, "got" is offered alongside "gotten" as a past participle for "to get." Thanks, Kristin