While teaching a Copyediting II course, I once was in a discussion about our pet peeves. I always enjoy this conversation because our peeves are so personal, and I get a clearer sense of who my students are. Our peeves aren’t just the results of what our elementary school teachers taught us, but also of our likes and dislikes.
During the discussion, a student shared a former manager’s peeve against get. The manager wouldn’t use it in speech or writing. “He just felt that there was always a better word. As a result, I now have to be careful not to automatically query this word when editing,” said Louann Pope.
Dismiss get entirely from the language? That had to be an unusual stance, a sighting of a rare zombie rule. But another student, Matthew Thompson, responded, “I wasn’t allowed to use the word get in any writing in high school, and so I’m inclined to agree that there’s usually a better word.”
If there’s a better word, we’re not using it often enough. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first printed usage of get as c.1200. American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) records 21 current senses of get, many with subsenses; 20 phrasal verbs containing get, also with many subsenses; and another 20 idioms, again with many subsenses.
Clearly, get is a useful little word. Garner’s Modern American Usage quotes Anthony Burgess on just how useful it can be:
“Foreign learner and native speaker alike can get through a great part of the day with only one verb … ‘get.’ … I get up in the morning, get a bath and a shave, get dressed, get my breakfast, get into the car, get to the office, get down to work, get some coffee at eleven, get lunch at one, get back, get angry, get tired, get home, get into a fight with my wife, get to bed.”A Mouthful of Air (1992)
What, then, is the problem with get?
Krystle Jones summed it up nicely: “I agree [it seems] alright in informal writing. In formal writing, it almost sounds tacky, like it discredits the author’s professionalism somehow.”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!
Scan through the various definitions of get, and you’ll find about a dozen usages labelled as “informal,” “slang,” or “nonstandard.” “To overcome or destroy” and “to hit or strike” are both informal usages, as are get it, get (one’s) (“to receive one’s due punishment”), and get somewhere.
“To meet with or incur” doesn’t have a label, but AHD’s usage note outlines a problem with it: “The use of get in the passive, as in We got sunburned at the beach, is generally avoided in formal writing.” But what should you use instead? Incurred? Were?
Aside from memorizing the multitude of senses and subsenses for get, how do you know when to edit it?
- Use your ear. You’ll hear it when a usage isn’t completely acceptable and probably not notice the word at all in acceptable situations. (Did you notice the get in the second sentence of this post?)
- Familiarize yourself with the questionable usages. There are comparatively fewer of these. Be alert to shades of meaning and how acceptable one might be over another. While the “to hit” get is labelled informal in AHD, the “to take revenge on” get is not.
- Look it up! When in doubt, check your dictionary for the specific usage and see how it’s labeled. Note that dictionaries don’t necessarily agree on labels or definitions. Start with your house dictionary.
Don’t reject a usage out of hand, either, just because it’s informal or slang. As Constance Hale writes in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, “Choosing the right verb, the perfect gem, does not always mean being highbrow or writing for a literary audience. It requires understanding what’s right for your piece, what best serves your purposes.”
A version of this article was originally published on 5/6/2014 on Copyediting.com.