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ASK DOCTOR DOROTHY PASTENSE FULLSTOP: What's wrong with 'have got'?


In truth, nothing.

The idea for this particular question was from a comment I received from an English teacher in the UK:

'I ... would always write (and teach) 'I have three children' rather than 'I've got three children'. Whilst I may say 'I've got' occasionally in the presence of family, I try to avoid it in my lessons. The use of other verbs to replace 'got' is actively encouraged in most British schools.'


My response at the time was this:


I would say 'have got' is not wrong - although I admit I don't - consciously or whatever - use it in academic writing (in that sense it does seem colloq [uail]!). Is it just being discouraged in formal writing (which I would be happy to accept) or being discouraged altogether? (Which would make several text books wrong, but I'm sure that's not what you meant!)


I did not receive a reply back... :-(


To explain further: the post that started this debate was a response to a question on what annoys people about English grammar.


This particular poster, an English teacher in the UK, said that she encouraged her pupils not to use 'have got' as it was a colloquailism (and also idiomatic in nature as it contains two separate words which, when put together, have a completely different meaning), instead encouraging them to simply use 'have'. So instead of saying I've got a pen, we should be saying I have a pen. ('Have got to', a three-word phrasal verb meaning 'it is important to do this', as in I've got to go to work, is considered perfectly okay.)  I responded by saying that 'have got' was perfectly normal in standard English. I stand by that view, backed by several pieces of evidence that is readily available in several coursebooks, along with some highly respected grammar books (Michael Swan, Raymond Murphy) that are available to learners of the English language! Indeed, several, if not all examples of phrasal verbs are seen as colloquail, but this does not mean we should not use them.


'Have got' (used when we talk about possession, relationship, illness) is in fact perfectly understandable by absolutely everyone and by a lot of language learners, but I have met students who were told - often quite strongly - that they should not use this phrasal verb. But it is in common spoken usage - the English teacher please take note - even more so with British English speakers: Have you got a pen? Yes I have! American English prefers Do you have a pen? Yes I do!, and is increasingly being seen in Britain as being more appropriate. (Some may see this as a little ironic, since many of these pedants often say that American English is not good for British English.) Even in American English, got-forms are used in very informal speech, sometimes with 'have' dropped: You got a pen?


A quick look at the British National Corpus (a kind of word bank) reveals several examples of 'have/has got', confirming that usage is common in spoken English.


As mentioned in my post above, the one area where I would avoid 'have got' (and even just 'have'), along with a large number of other phrasal verbs, is in formal writing. For me, using 'have got' would be seen as being lazy. Depending on the context, there are several, often far more suitable, and more accurate alternatives that can be used. Some examples:


The company is in possession of several vehicles. (NOT 'has got several vehicles')

She owns several companies. (NOT 'has got several companies')

Her children are blessed with artistic talent. (NOT 'have got artistic talent')

Coca Cola have cornered the soft drinks market. (NOT 'have got the soft drinks market')


There is a very popular television show in Britain (and with other versions around the world) that surely must upset some of these pedants: Britain's Got Talent! (Britain has Got Talent!). Okay, maybe it could be called Britain Has Talent, but this does sound a little formal. And this is perhaps a very good example why 'have got' is in fact better than just 'have'. How about 'Britain's People Possess Talent' or 'Britons Are Blessed With Talent'? Er, no. Okay, I am using a few extreme alternatives here.


The fact is that the TV producers recognise that the show's name - Britain's Got Talent - is simple, catchy, memorable, and most importantly, easily understood and to the point. Britain Has Talent is just... well, dull. It just says, hello, we would like to tell you that there are people in this country that can do wonderful things. But 'got' seems to work excellently as an intensifier. Britain's Got Talent is saying, quite strongly, we have the people and we want to emphasize that we are brilliant at what we do! Now we all have to admit that this show is not aimed at academics and English experts. If you like that sort of thing, it is fun, entertaining, and most importantly, shown at peak times on TV where the mainstream audience simply wants to relax and be entertained by people who speak their own, informal language, and they feel that they are being spoken to by the presenters. Fanatical Have got haters will have to think of something else altogether.


So while we might well use 'have/has got' in colloquail language and informal conversation, you can understand why other forms would be more suitable in formal situations.


So the advice? In speaking, no problem. But in formal writing - and even in certain very formal situations when speaking - they are best avoided. Indeed, in those formal situations using alternatives does give a very good impression. And if there is one area that that pedantics might be able to claim victory with speaking, then using 'have' instead of 'have got' in very formal situations might be more advisable, although I doubt many would really worry that much.


With informal writing - emails, personal letters, even stories - use it with my blessing. To be truthful, it is only the pedantics who would say otherwise.

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