Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

I Can't Get No Satisfaction

I have to admit that I have a problem in teaching the verb to get to English language learners. It's not just that it is a verb that has multiple meanings depending on context — around a dozen, I'd say. No, the bigger problem for me is that I haven't recovered from it being a prohibited item when I was a kid.

'Don't use that word,' said my mother when I'd say something like "I haven't got it." "Got isn't a word," said my red-faced, apoplectic primary school teacher, upping the ante. "That's an Americanism," said my grandfather, leaving the most damning criticism for last. Gosh, was it really that bad?

This suggests a couple of things, at least. Firstly, how language is subject to fashion, is ever mutable and seems to change with the season. The same teacher who informed me that the word got didn't exist also told us wee bairns that "a preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with," which was a highly memorable way of giving information, but information which is now redundant as no one seems to care where the preposition goes these days. Secondly, how the older generation in the decades following World War II foresaw the encroachment of American English into British English and fought a valiant rearguard action. They might even have known at the time what a hopeless task that would be.

The result is I still feel a reluctance to condone the use of get and its ubiquitous past relative got even though I know I use it myself. Some things are easier learned than unlearned. But even since having accepted that it is perfectly acceptable to use the word, teaching it in its various forms and meanings is something again. The biggest problem lies in the fact that there is a great temptation to teach this, as with so many other items where multiple manifestations exist, as a list to be learned. If there are a dozen or so uses of to get (some people will disagree as to which are authentic uses) then the way not to teach them is to present them as an index.

While lists undoubtedly work for learning certain subjects (learning periodic tables, for example) they rarely work for language learning, and almost never work for the purpose of encouraging active language use such as interactive speaking. (Yes, I know some people do respond well to learning this way, but it is a small minority.) What is needed is the context for each use to be found, and in this case what we are actually teaching are different verbs that happen to look exactly the same as each other! It's confusing, and the confusion, I believe, is increased by presenting all the alternatives together.

For years I attempted to adopt a musical approach, seeking out songs where get was used in its various forms, hoping that memorable contexts would help fix the meanings one by one. I never managed to find a song for each of the ten or eleven uses I thought ought to be covered, and I was also hampered by my own rules for choosing songs to use in the class. Normally I shun using the latest popular songs, as this is more likely to bring about division and dissent in the classroom. Applause by some will be met by annoyance from others and, at best, the teacher is seen as an anachronism playing referee.

If I chose to use music, I'd be more likely to go for a something which we might safely categorize as a "classic" and which is therefore deemed as timeless, and less likely to be seen by hormonal teens as an attempt by a wrinkly to be ingratiating with them. On the other hand, if what we're looking for is a quick fix, something that provides an immediately recognizable context then a contemporary song might do the trick — and besides, some students might appreciate guidance through the lyrics of a song they like, or, conversely, an opportunity to point out what rubbish the lyrics are once you lay them out in front of the class. Whichever route is chosen, there are hazards to be negotiated.

Conversely, we might be creating all sorts of problems for ourselves, depending on our own situations. For instance, the lyrics of many popular songs reinforce the kind of language we might not want to encourage, certainly in terms of grammar (much rap, for example, is wonderful if you want to teach how not to use prepositions). And when it comes to the verb to get then there are frequent clashes between the American use, where got will frequently appear as the main verb appearing on its own, and the British/Irish/Australian/Canadian/Indian use, which is more likely to have it coupled with to have as part of the present perfect tense. (I got you, babe would be more accurately rendered I've got you, babe in non-American English. )

Although keeping a careful watch for using songs when appropriate, these days I would rather introduce different uses of to get when dealing the verbs that it might replace. There is no use of the verb to get for which other (usually Latinate) verbs cannot substitute. Thus when get means acquire, then introduce get in that context when manipulating the verb acquire. Likewise with become, receive, arrive, fetch, experience, score, contract, induce, etc.

This whole business of recognizing that words are best taught within clusters of other words has recently taken on a new impetus. Some interesting work has been done by Hania Kryszewska and Paul Davis over the past few years which looks at the process of learning words through the contexts in which they are presented rather than as individual items, the concept being that words are largely social creatures that like the company of other words and are best understood in this way. Look out for their forthcoming publication, The Company Words Keep (Delta Publishing).

Of course, none of this overcomes my slight discomfort at teaching the word at all, but that's my problem, not that of my students. The point is that this little word, one of the most common in the English language, presents us with a tricky series of problems to solve. Students are more likely to have acquired the use from a media source (I got it from the movies) than from the classroom, which also means that you don't get to choose when to introduce the appropriate use — they will. Which further means that you, the teacher, need to keep a weather eye out at all times for its use slipped into utterances made by students and perhaps adapt your tackling of the uses appropriately. Which might result in you having your own list of songs, anecdotes, cartoons to select from to illustrate the context. Or whatever. Anything to help the poor little blighters to get it.


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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 25th 2012, 1:54 AM
Comment by: Marie (GA)
Got it! Thanks.
Monday June 25th 2012, 7:15 AM
Comment by: Nick Shepherd (London United Kingdom)
I love your article - but aren't applause and approbation the same thing? You seem to be offering them as opposites.

But I like everything else you say, especially the bit about the valiant rearguard action. People don't like change - I think it makes them nervous.

Nick Shepherd
(a fellow Brit and sort of ex-Council)
Monday June 25th 2012, 8:25 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
"Get it?"
"Got it."
"Good!"

Immortal repeated patter/refrain from The Court Jester, with Danny Kaye, early 1950s.
Monday June 25th 2012, 8:56 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Is it a coincidence?
When I first came in this country (seven years ago) and got admission to a graduate school, I frequently came across to the uses of the phrase "got it."
Because of my oriental background like you we also were taught that "got" is not a word and a suggestion for not to use it sentence making. As I was reading this article I realized now that even in this English Speaking country some native people faced identical problems.
As such this article is indeed very explanatory in clarifying an old burning issue. Because of my nonnative identity, I am always afraid to ask question regarding these types of confusing issues. Well VT membership is making me more smarter. Slowly, I am getting used to to use the "get it" phrase in sentences.
Monday June 25th 2012, 9:26 AM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Nick,

You're right, of course, applause and approbation hardly make opposites. I know I had rejected 'abhorrence' as being too strong but obviously gave up the effort half way through. 'Annoyance' might do the trick. Thanks!

[Now fixed! —Ed.]
Monday June 25th 2012, 11:08 AM
Comment by: Bartosz M. (Gdańsk Poland)
In my opinion "get" stands for strong abbreviation of thinking and thus is fertile with meanings. I would propose a division like this:

"get" for students who want to be quick, but not too precise;

"acquire" for those who want to be precise and expose natural interest for elaboration
Monday June 25th 2012, 11:21 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
I've only two thoughts to share - one, as an American who frequently uses "get" and "got" in all the many ways one should and shouldn't, I always thought the song "I got you, babe" was more slang than true American English. If I were writing the song, it would be "I've got you", but we were generally told to steer clear of that type of usage for "got" in elementary school as well. "I have" is enough, we don't need the ugly "got" stuck in there also. So I always thought that the addition of the superfluous "got" was the Americanism, not the dropping of the "have". That part is just bad grammar. As a teacher, you know better than most that what is taught in school is often not what is put into practice! I often wonder if other English speakers are basing their dismissal of American English as so poor solely on what they hear from TV and we lazy American English speakers, rather than what our American English teachers are actually teaching. Surely not every Brit uses proper British English as taught in the classroom, either!

More importantly, I absolutely love that you introduced me to the use of "wrinkly" as a noun! I've never heard it used this way: "an attempt by a wrinkly to be ingratiating...". Just goes to show, sometimes language comes the other way across the pond! :-)
Monday June 25th 2012, 12:00 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Articles like this make VT the equivalent of morning coffee for me, without the nervousness later! Thank you!

Among TV detectives lately, there seems to be a serious infatuation with the question "Whaddaya got?", and the inquiry "Got milk?" has inspired all sorts of similar phrases. These are just two of the media's verbal fads that have the effect of fingernails on a chalk board. I suppose being able to remember chalk boards identifies me as a "wrinkly" (see paragraph #7, above) - that's a wonderful word and I plan to use it every chance I get!

This day is off to a great start; thanks, VT!

The Happy Quibbler
Tuesday June 26th 2012, 4:21 PM
Comment by: Fitch O. (Porto Portugal)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
In response to Tamara's comments, I think that the exposure that the world - let alone other English speakers - has to American English via the media has created an imperfect idea of how the language is more accurately used. I am speaking from the point of view of someone who teaches people whose first language is not English and who frequently learn a lot of what they actually use in English from TV, games and songs. It's not very pretty on the ears at times. Having said that, those who pick up English from British media - and there are many who do - often end up with something equally grating. Americans don't have the monopoly on poorly used English! I have the fortune to work with some talented American teachers of English and we sometimes compare notes on which media from which side of the pond manages to mangle our shared language the most!

Incidentally, the word 'wrinkly' as a noun is one that is commonly used by youngsters in the UK these days. And they aren't being very complimentary either!
Sunday July 15th 2012, 3:50 PM
Comment by: ThomasK
The point about teaching words in clusters is quite interesting.

I agree basically, and consider that very useful, but we should not end up in a 'structuroglobal' method, often used to teach French, where students seem to be trained to memorize whole sentences, but don't get ;-) to transfer. I do believe in chunks though, and learning phrases, but used creatively, for transfer. In that respect I consider analysing the phrases to some extent, useful in a mnemonic sense: when students can link [the separate] words in some way, they can remember them easier - though chunks may be helpful as well...

Using real-life dialogues and (rap) lyrics seems useful to me as well, despite grammatical objections, etc., because it stimulates students...

Jan G

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