Getting to Grips with Get

How many times have students said to you “I’ll never understand the word get. It has so many meanings!” Just before I wrote this I looked up get in a concordancer (1), and these are a few examples of what I got (no pun intended) on the first page. I won’t quote the exact sentences, just the basic collocations (2) :
Get ready, get set ...
  • Get rid of those old newspapers
  • Get drunk / closer / angry / killed off / clear
  • Get paid
  • Get him elected
  • Get into line / bed
  • Get the hell out of here
  • Get someone to check
  • Get a pay rise / a receipt / a goal / water for us
  • I’m starting to get the drift of what he means
  • Get hold of the manufacturer
  • Get over something
  • Get together
Can we see any regularity in the use of get here? I’d suggest we can, and that get is a general verb usually used to indicate change. The problem is that change can happen in a number of ways, leading to the apparent multiplicity of meanings for the verb.

Let’s look at some examples, both from the list above and others :

1. Get into line - He got off the horse – He got out of the car - We’ll get to London at about 5 o’clock.

Here, get indicates a change in position. First the person was out of line, on the horse, in the car, or in another city, and then their position changed. This use of get is signalled by the preposition of movement which follows.

2. He got drunk – We got closer – She got married – I got angry – He got killed

This time get indicates a change in state : first the person was sober, far away, single, calm or alive, and then their state changed. Get here could be glossed as “become” and is followed by an adjective or a past participle acting as an adjective.

3. They got a pay rise – Always get a receipt – He got a goal – I got a new car yesterday – Go to the supermarket and get some bread – The thieves didn’t get much – I got a book from the library – I got an Ipod for Christmas – He got the milk out of the fridge
This third category of change is change in possession, and here get has the general meaning of obtain. There are a lot of ways in which you can obtain something – you can buy it, steal it, borrow it, receive it from someone else, put out your hand and take it etc etc. Or in the case of a goal , by kicking a ball to the back of a net. Get here is followed by a noun – the object which is obtained.

Many of the more idiomatic or colloquial uses of get are just extensions of these three categories :
  • Get the hell out of here is just a more emphatic way of saying get out of here, thus indicating a change of position
  • Get rid of is a change in state – first you are “encumbered” with the unwanted thing and then you don’t have it any more. Get together and get over something are also easily explained in this way.
  • Get the drift is a change in possession – only this time it is understanding which you obtain rather than a concrete object. Similarly get hold of could be glossed as "obtain contact with"
I introduce all of these three basic uses of get at elementary level, one at a time as they come up, and making sure that students understand the underlying concept of change. As they progress the idiomatic uses of get can easily be explained using the three categories, and the students have a basis for understanding the more complex uses which are usually only taught at later levels :
  • I got paid
  • They got him elected
  • I’ll get him to check the equipment
  • I got to drive a Ferrari!
The first of these examples fits fairly easily into the change of state category – notice the adjectival use of the past participle, just as in the simpler examples we looked at before : First I wasn’t paid and then I was. But the final three are harder to explain in this way.

I think we can do it in examples two and three, which are usually explained as having a causative meaning – the sentences could be glossed as They caused him to be elected and I’ll cause him to check the equipment (1) Again I would argue that an underlying change is being discussed - first he was not elected and then he was; the equipment is not currently checked, but it will be - and get indicates the change in the situation.

The only example which I can’t fit so easily into the categories is I got to drive a Ferrari. I’d never driven one before but now I have ? Possibly. But in any case, even if we leave this (and other?) uses out of the general explanation we have vastly simplified the area for the students, especially at the lower levels.

And talking of lower levels, it may have occurred to you that the other expression that I’ve not considered is the use of get in expressions such as I’ve got two brothers. This does fit into the categories, but causes such problems for both teachers and students that it deserves an article of its own  - see here :
Have Got : Part One
Have Got : Part Two

1. A concordancer is a computerised language corpus. If you enter a word, or sequence of words into the concordancer, you’ll get all or a selection of the sentences from the corpus in which that word or expression appears. It’s therefore ideal for checking collocations. The concordancer which I used to find examples of get can be found here.

2. A collocation is a sequence of words which “go together”. For example highly collocates with embarrassing but not linked, while strongly collocates with linked but not embarrassing :
Right : It was highly embarrassing / Smoking is obviously strongly linked to lung cancer.
Wrong : It was strongly embarrassing / Smoking is obviously highly linked to lung cancer.

3. Don’t get distracted by the difference between the past participle and to+ infinitive for the second verbs in these examples. They merely reflect the difference in the underlying verb – passive in the first case and active in the second. The same structures can occur with other verbs, for example want : They wanted him (to be) elected, I wanted him to check the equipment.

Photo provided under Creative Commons Licence by kansasexplorer via flickr.

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