Please Avoid “Gotten”

“Gotten” is, technically speaking, a past participle of “get.” “Get” is a fine word. It is short and direct, and it is particularly useful when we want to be clear and declarative. “Get away!” “Jeez, dude, get a life.” Or, as my uncle likes to say so affectionately, “Get your damn hands off that banjo!”

If I do, in fact, remove my hands from the banjo with its apparently hypersensitive tuning pegs that only my uncle and God know how to manipulate, and if I want to communicate as much to this beloved uncle, then I have a number of choices. “Jeez, dude, get a life,” might be one option. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say I want to speak in a more formal register. If so, I might say, “I have gotten my hands off the banjo.” My response simply took the verb my uncle offered, “get,” and employed a past tense form to demonstrate the accomplishment of his imperative.

And if I said that I would immediately want to wash my mouth out with a Leinenkugel. “Gotten” might be the ugliest word in our language, but thankfully, it’s also one of the most dispensable. It always surprises me when I encounter it in the works of writers I respect. Here is a sentence from a fine writer, David Rothenberg, from his book on the music of whales (a book I strongly recommend):

“In the seventies, Paul Winter went down to Baja California three years in a row, where the gray whales in their winter calving lagoons have since gotten more and more interested in human whale watchers.”

It’s like biting into a muffin and crunching some wooden sliver from a broken spoon. Why not, “have since become”? Or simply substitute “are” for “have since gotten”?

 “Gotten” is never necessary. There is not a single situation where another word, and a better word (I think they are all better), can’t replace it. Let’s get rid of it.

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