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Overuse of “got” –
and other annoying words and phrases

“We've got to get control of all those gots

“That said, choose your words carefully”

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

We’ve got to get control of all those gots

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

The "getting" and "gotting" of American English threatens our ability to express ourselves with precision, if you get my meaning. I hope my declaration got your attention

If you’re unconcerned about how common get and got are getting to be, you need to get with it because, believe me, we’ve got problems. Forgive me if I get on my soapbox, but I don’t want you to get complacent. We gotta get started on a solution.

It’s not just that get and got get used in place of more precise and interesting words; their predominating use also represents a general trend toward less elegant and artful speech. As you can tell, that trend is starting to get to me, though I’m aware I may get nothing but trouble for raising the issue.

I’m not advocating a stodgy, artificially formal style of English, but I am defending (or getting behind) a style of writing and speaking that retains some of the natural beauty of our language, as in "I have two dollars" rather than "I got two dollars."

The other day I heard a radio commentator refer to a marketing approach designed "to get interest" in a song so that the recording company could "get someone to pay for it." How does speech like that get on the air?

My concern is that, if we stop using more interesting and colorful words such as arouse and induce, those words may get dropped (or vanish) from our vocabulary, a lamentable development given the rich and varied choices we English speakers have got (or have available to us).

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that get is so deeply ingrained in our everyday idioms that we could never expunge it (or get rid of it), nor would I recommend that we try (or get on the stick and get cracking with it). Such an effort would get nowhere.

Besides, there is something deeply satisfying about the guttural sound of get and got, a sound that seems linked to the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Germanic roots of our language. It is perhaps no accident that English lends itself so naturally to the heavily accentuated rhythms of rock and roll. One feels some sympathy for our French counterparts who must work so hard to achieve the same effect with the syllables of their unstressed language. English is definitely the get-down language.

But to get back to (or return to) the point I’m trying to get across (or convey), how about some degree of balance between the guttural and the graceful?

My modest proposal: At least on occasion, in place of got, use have, as in "I have two dollars," or use achieve, as in "Houston has achieved control of the spacecraft," or simply use a more precise verb, as in "Houston has stabilized the spacecraft." How about "I finished" rather than "I got done"?

Still, I think Curtis Mayfield got it right when he wrote the lyrics to his famous song. Just for the record, he did not write, "People, prepare yourselves."

 

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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

That said, choose your words carefully

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere
 

Word choice is a topic on many editors’ and readers’ minds these days.

Christine wants to know which word is correct, “preventative” or “preventive”:

“I always thought eating an apple a day was a ‘preventative’ measure to take when you wanted to ‘prevent’ the doctor from visiting. Now it seems I’ve been left in the dust of the preference for ‘preventive.’”

I’m sorry to say you have. Just as the preferred word is “orient” rather than “orientate,” the preferred word is “preventive” – the one with fewer syllables. It might help if you think of eating just three apples a day rather than four.

Donald writes: “I’m trying to explain to an ESL [English as a Second Language] student the difference between ‘ensure’ and ‘insure.’ Any suggestions? I’ve looked at Webster’s Unabridged, which seems to add to my confusion.”

First, my compliments to you for owning and using a dictionary, even if this particular word search was unsuccessful. “Ensure” means “to bring about,” whereas “insure” – as its spelling suggests – refers to something that can be insured: life, health, and property. So ensure your happiness and security by insuring your house.

Otto writes: “Your column on ‘got/get’ reminded me of a group of phrases used mostly on TV that are annoying to me: ‘Having said that,’ ‘That said,’ ‘That having been said.’ They have become clichs. They have meaning that is unclear or non-existent. And they often have an antecedent problem, as in ‘Having said that, the bill was approved.’ On many occasions, you have criticized dangling modifiers. But I remember none of your columns that addresses my group of annoyances.”

Well, here it is. That said, I too find those phrases annoying.

Also in response to my column on annoying phrases, one editor wrote, “Enjoyed this column, but I gotta admit I don’t get riled over got.”

Nevertheless, this editor does have a “mighty long” list of pet peeves, among them:

“I am at war with a couple of recent virus-like business-story clichs, and I eliminate them every time I’m editing. The first is ‘saw,’ as in ‘Medtronic saw its stock fall.’ A company is inanimate; it can’t see. The second is ‘shuttered’ as a synonym for ‘closed.’ Once in a while isn’t bad, but its frequent recurrence makes me shudder. One of the worst – and partially redundant – is ‘predawn darkness.’ It often appears in a sentence with another near-meaningless clich: ‘Workers sifted through the rubble of a fire that destroyed the Ace Pancake and Tube Alloy plant in the predawn darkness.’”

I agree that personifying an inanimate company as “seeing” sometimes seems pointless. However, I think that personification, when done well, can breathe life into a sentence, as in “Medtronic fell on hard times” or “Medtronic stocks jumped to a record high.”

Mostly, though, I want to tour the Ace Pancake and Tube Alloy plant to see if the company has increased its efficiency by consolidating the two production lines.

Hmm. Think I’ll skip breakfast.

 

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