The Mysteries of ‘Get’
Introduction - GET
What's the most important word in the English language? They say the most common word is 'the'. The most important might be 'be'. But in fact it's probably 'get'; the most useful and widely-used word with so many applications. And it is due to this wide usage that it can be so confusing for speakers of Romance languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian); because nothing like it exists in Latin and its usage is so wide and general. It's much easier to master words with specific meanings.
A lot of English learners tend to hit a plateau around Upper-Intermediate (B2) level because, essentially, they still use their own language to structure their sentences when speaking English. To make that final leap to Advanced level (C1 - C2) it is necessary to start conceptualising your sentences in English way before they ever hit your mouth. And a big part of doing that is mastering the word 'get'. And, for as many students who get stuck in their English progress because they do not utilise this word, there are almost as many others who utilise it incorrectly. So, let's begin.
In this article, I am going to explain the fundamental concept that drives the word 'get' and unites all its various usages. Then I will start with some basic, easy synonyms with the word that have direct translations in Romance languages. This we will call the 'low-hanging fruit' - or, in other words, the easy part.
Then I will explain how 'get' is used with adjectives and then finally we'll get onto the juicy red meat of the article, which is using 'get' in passive structures. In many ways, this final part will be the most useful for a lot of students, because it is by far the most complicated.
Simple Latin synonyms of 'get'.
Using get with adjectives.
Using 'get' with passive structures.
I will focus on these three usages of ‘get’. There are other uses, of course, which I will address briefly at the end of the article. But I think that, in order to truly get get, it is necessary to understand the three usages above.
4. Get someone to do something.
7. In specific expressions and idioms.
1. What is 'Get' all about?
'Get'; the simple, mysterious three-letter word which some students think can just be inserted anywhere in any sentence to improve the level of English; the word which some students think they can just ignore like it does not exist, and get along speaking English perfectly well (they can); the word which, even when you have studied it and possibly seem to have mastered it, you will encounter usages that just seem to make no sense and follow no logic. The first step to understanding 'get' is to understand the basic, fundamental concept that underpins all usage of this word.
Most often a change in state; maybe a change in situation. It's a very simple, fundamental concept. Although the usage will vary, at all times the word is fundamentally referring to some kind of change in state. One of the most simple and fundamental usages - which students are often reluctant to learn - is that 'get' can be closely related to 'have'. 'Have' describes a state. So, with 'subject + have + noun', we can also use ‘subject + get + noun'.
I don't have a girlfriend.
This is a very simple, declarative sentence. Maybe this guy has bad breath, or he's uneducated, or he's overweight. The poor guy doesn't have a girlfriend. Let's say he improves his dental hygiene, he's starts reading books and he starts going to the gym. Within twelve months, he's got pearly white teeth, he can speak eloquently on the migration crisis and the threats of A.I. (artificial intelligence) and he's got abs (abdominal muscles) of concrete. Good on him. And then, something incredible happens:
Now he has a girlfriend. In 2017, he did not have a girlfriend. In 2018, he has a girlfriend. Two opposite states. So, we can use 'get' to talk about the precise moment when this state changed.
I got a girlfriend in December.
Conversely, we could tell a much sadder story:
I had a girlfriend. But I got lazy, I got bad breath and I got fat. Then I lost my girlfriend.
In the reverse story, our hero starts off successful but it all goes wrong for him. It all changes.
Yesterday, I got a new car.
I got a new cover for my iPhone.
I got a speeding fine for driving too fast.
I got a black eye from my new girlfriend.
I got home from work at 11.15pm.
In all these examples, the original state is that the subject (in each example the subject is ‘I’) did not have the object, and then this state changed and the subject had the object. 'Get' can be a challenge for some learners because there is no equivalent concept in their mother tongue. But get is used as a synonym for some words that have clear equivalents.
Get is a synonym of 'obtain'. I got a new car can also be formulated as I obtained a new car.
And get is very commonly a synonym of 'receive'. I got a speeding fine can also be formulated as I received a speeding fine. Some common examples:
I got an email from my boss last night (receive).
I got a bunch of flowers from my employer as a leaving present (receive).
I got a nice applause at the end of my speech (receive).
We reserve 'arrive' more for the end of long journeys. Day-to-day journeys, such as going to work, or going to school, or going home, we more commonly use 'get' than 'arrive'. Although ‘arrive’ is not incorrect, it is more natural to use ‘get’ in these examples:
In this manner, immediately, the keen student can incorporate the word 'get' into their vocabulary. They must substitute the words 'obtain', 'receive' and 'arrive' for 'get' in spoken English. It is worth pointing out here that 'get' is an informal word, and sometimes in a formal context, or when specific meaning is important, it may be better to use the formal (or Latin) synonym. Conversely, ‘receive’ and ‘obtain’ are quite formal words and would sound slightly strange in spoken English.
2. Get with Adjectives
'Get' is very commonly used to describe a change in an adjective-state. 'Get' is very closely linked to 'be'. 'Be' describes states, and is one of the fundamental words in the English language. And so 'get' describes the changes in these states. For example:
My boss was happy. My boss is angry.
Now this example doesn't seem to make sense. He can't be happy and angry. Here we just have two opposite states; what's going on? We need more information.
My boss discovered that I have spent $12,000 from the company accounts on shoes and holidays. My boss got very angry.
Ah, now it makes more sense. Yes, my boss got really, really angry. He was so happy and smiley, he was in such a good mood. Then he checked the company finances and he got furious. He got aggressive! He nearly got violent! Here, we are not talking about the states themselves (happy, furious, aggressive, violent); we are talking about the change from being happy to being furious, etc.
I was very interested in a movie in the cinema, but I left before the end.
Why would you leave the cinema before the end of a film that you are interested in?
But actually the movie was terrible and I got bored before half way.
So, the original state is interested, and the final state is bored. In the middle, you get bored. It refers to the moment when one state changes into another. Some common expressions with 'get + adjective':
To get lost
To get scared
To get embarrassed
To get confused
To get tired
To get excited
To get hot / cold
To get dark / light
Get wet / dry
In many if not most situations, it is more useful to refer to the moment when one state changed into another state, rather than the state itself. If you go to an unfamiliar place, you might get lost. If it rains and you don’t have an umbrella, you get wet. You will get tired if you don’t take a break.
3. Get with Passive Structures
And now we arrive at the meat of the article (or do we get to it?). This is perhaps the usage that confuses students the most. In English, we switch between active and passive structures very freely, and it is imperative that a C1 level student is able to handle passive grammatical structures as easily they handle active ones. An active sentence is very basic:
'subject + verb + object'
Oh my god - who killed who? Who is alive and who is dead? You don't want to get your subject and object confused in this sentence. In this sentence, Donald is dead, man. And Doug is the killer. Doug is the subject who commits the action and Donald is the object who receives the action. We can say the same thing with a passive structures:
'object + be + past participle [+ by subject]'
Donald was killed [by Doug].
Maybe Doug used a hammer. Either way, both sentences describe states. In an active sentence, we focus on the subject (Doug) as the most important thing. In a passive sentence, we are more interested in the object (Donald). We might use passive structures because the subject is irrelevant, unimportant, or obvious. For example:
We don't need to say 'by the police', because duh! it's obvious. Here, we are interested in the result of the action, not the subject, and so we use a passive structure.
Doug was arrested by the F.B.I.
In this scenario, the fact that the F.B.I arrest Doug is a little more interesting than if it was just the police, so we might want to mention it. But we still care that Doug has been arrested, not that the F.B.I. is committing the action. But very frequently, we will only want to focus on who receives an action, not who commits it. In these situations, we use the passive voice, and we prefer to focus on the change in state (get) rather than the state itself (be). While we use 'get' to show a change in adjective-state, we also use 'get' to show the recipient of an action. Here are some examples with the active structure below in (brackets):
‘subject + get + past participle’
My friend got hit by a car. (A car hit my friend.)
My boss got fired. (The senior management fired my boss.)
My sister got awarded a medal. (The government awarded my sister a medal.)
I got shouted at by my boss. (My boss shouted at me.)
In each example, we either don't care about the subject of the action or we care far more about the recipient. These are all very common phrases and situations, but in Romance languages they are expressed so differently (grammatically) that it is difficult for these speakers who think in their own language to learn this. This is a huge part of the English language; talking about the result or recipient of an action. It is a large step to take, to be able to conceptualise the world in this manner, and conceptualise it in a linguistic framework utilising the word (and concept) 'get'. Do you get it?
I got promoted. (The management promoted me).
I got paid a bonus. (The management paid me a bonus).
I got caught stealing. (The shop worker caught me stealing).
I got rained on while waiting for a bus. (The rain rained on me while waiting for a bus.)
In none of these examples would you realistically use an active structure. Although it’s not 50-50 in terms of which usage (active or passive) is more common in general English, passive sentences still make up a large proportion of spoken English structures. And it’s this proportion that many English learners neglect.
Some examples where we might prefer to use the passive before the active:
· My friend’s car got stolen by his brother.
o My friend’s brother stole his car.
In this example, we have two options to formulate the sentence, but we know our friend and we do not know his brother, so we would prefer to formulate the sentence in the passive as it is our friend who received (or was the victim of) the action.
· The footballer player got insulted by the away supporters.
o The away supporters insulted the football player.
Here, the two sentences are largely equal. We do not personally know the football player or the away supporters. But probably we would prefer to structure the sentence in the passive if we like or sympathise with the football player.
· My laptop got broken by my cat.
o My cat broke my laptop.
Which structure would you choose to formulate this sentence? It’s interesting – which do you care about more: the cat or the laptop? Mostly likely we would care most about the result of the action, which is a broken laptop. On the other hand, many people might prefer to focus on who is to blame – the cat!
4. Get Someone to do Something
One specific structure with 'get' is when you convince someone to take an action. The meaning is quite specific, as to say that there is no obligation as such; you do not obligate someone to do something. This third person does what you want them to do, but they do it voluntarily.
We use the structure 'get + object + to-infinitive', when the object is a person.
I got my mum to take me to the train station.
I got my friends to help me move house.
I got my daughter to do her homework before dinner.
I got my wife to give me a massage.
In all these examples, the subject did not have a gun pointed at anyone's head. It's not clear how happy each person was to perform the task, but the very definition of 'get to' is that they all did it voluntarily.
5. Get with Imperatives
In short imperative orders and instructions, we often use 'get'. This can be considered quite impolite and aggressive, and is often reserved for when you are angry. However, it's a fundamental part of how we conceptualise in English and so important to understand. In each example, the speaker desires a situation to change.
As a teacher it is not uncommon to say get out to adolescent students from time to time...
6. Get in Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs are the other great beast of the English language that must be slayed (or at least punched in the face) in order to conquer the advanced levels. There are literally thousands of phrasal verbs and it is impossible to learn them all by memory. There is a degree of logic in the meanings of the particle (the preposition) but a lot times there just isn’t, and learning phrasal verbs is simply learning more vocabulary.
Some common phrasal verbs with ‘get’:
· Get on / get along with
Phrasal verbs as a topic is beyond the remit of this article, but if you are at a high level of English, there’s a good chance that you already know many of them.
7. Expressions with Get
And finally, there are numerous fixed expressions and idioms with ‘get’. You are best served learning these separately as well, and not worrying too much about the meaning of individual words in each expression.
· To get up to something.
· To get one’s act together.
· To get round to doing something.
· To get rid of something.
Again, the meanings of these fixed expressions are beyond the remit of this article. These are all useful expressions which you should learn!
Have you got get yet? Or has get got you?
The starting point to mastering ‘get’ is understanding that it is used to refer to changes in state. From there, we use it to refer to people or things that receive an action (rather than committing an action). We differentiate ‘get’ from ‘be’ because ‘be’ only refers to states themselves, whereas ‘get’ refers to the actions or circumstances that change states.
For those serious about mastering ‘get’, I suggest that you focus on using ‘get’ in passive structures. Get comfortable and familiar (this is the imperative form of ‘get’ – although I do not mean to be rude!) with the grammar of the passive, but then – more importantly – get used to conceptualising the world around you in terms of who or what receives an action, and not who or what commits an action.
If you like this article and wish for some concrete exercises to practice using ‘get’ in the passive and even just thinking in the passive, please send me a message and I will provide you with some interesting and entertaining exercises that I have made myself.
And if you want a competent and interesting English teacher, I am good for that as well J