Got or Gotten?

Editing requires compromise between editor and writer. Editing shouldn’t occur in one direction, but I’ll likely talk about that another time. The point is edits should be open for discussion, so it may be a surprise to hear me say there’s one word I’ve always insisted not appear in my work. That word is gotten.

In the USA and Canada, gotten is the past participle of got (some say it’s also the past participle of get, but it’s more complicated).

In the UK got is the past participle of get. UK dictionaries list gotten as North American and Archaic.

To put it another way and further explain, the past tense of get is got, but in British English, got is also the past participle. In American English, it depends on the situation. Though it’s a little hard for me to get my head around (seems unnecessarily convoluted), it depends on whether the circumstances are ‘static’ meaning possessing or needing, or ‘dynamic’ meaning acquiring or becoming.

So one might say, I got a new dog, but equally, I’ve gotten a new dog. In both cases, a Brit would simply use got.

Both versions are ancient, but the simple got has been the accepted use for so long in the UK most people don’t know gotten ever existed or even does. For a long time when younger if I came across gotten in a book, I assumed the writer was using slang, particularly when the word formed part of speech. To be fair, for someone who had never come across the word in an English lesson, and for which it sounded so jarring, it’s not an implausible assumption to make.

There are plenty of words which become part of the British language, and I don’t mean those we’ve imported from the United States, particularly by watching an influx of American television shows. Many words in many languages originate from other sources, and even form the basis of words we know today. Many of these enrich our vocabulary, but gotten has never worked for me. Neither does scarf (as in scarf down food — in the UK we would say to scoff down food).

So, why do I dislike gotten so much, especially as it’s one of those words creeping back into the English language? Language everywhere has always been pliable. New words form; equally words drop out of usage. Gotten ‘to my ear’ sounds lazy (and I stress only what I hear, not in criticism of its use elsewhere), because it sounds like slang. Simple as. Also, the UK use is far simpler. But more than that I’ve written mostly English characters based in the UK (or in space and yes, some fantasy settings), but for those contemporary works, I know most British characters wouldn’t use the word, so it makes no sense for it to appear in the narrative. I would argue the same in the scarf/scoff example. If I were writing an American character, I would equally insist on word appropriate language.

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