The Indispensable ‘Get’

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve been amusing myself lately by eavesdropping on people, listening for the use of the word get. I’ve concluded that get is as necessary to English speakers as the verb to be.

The most common synonyms for the verb get are receive, obtain, and buy:

I get the daily paper. (receive)
Next month I will get my first raise in salary. (obtain)
He got a 45” television set at the auction. (bought)

In his sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us” Wordsworth uses get in the sense of “to accumulate wealth”:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

The verb get has so many additional meanings that I wonder how ESL learners sort them all out.

For example, used with the preposition on, get can have at least four different meanings:

How are you getting on with your studies? (managing, progressing)
Sallie gets on with her mother-in-law. (has a good relationship)
At 93, Mr. Biggs is really getting on. (becoming older)
Stop obsessing about the past and get on with your life. (continue)

Here are a few more uses of get:

Don’t get so nervous when you have an interview. (become)

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? (reach, arrive at)

I can’t get used to your new hairdo. (become accustomed to)

So he mispronounced your name; get over it. (forget it, let it go).

Now that everyone is in town, let’s get together for dinner. (meet)

I know that losing your best friend is difficult, but you’ll get through it. (survive, overcome)

I want my neighbor to get rid of his vicious dog. (dispose of)

She’s trapped in a dead-end job and wants to get out. (escape)

We hope to get away this weekend. (travel, go somewhere else)

I’ve tried and tried to master algebra, but I just don’t get it. (understand)

Then there are the imperatives with get:

Get busy! Get a move on! (Hurry up.)
Get lost! (Stop bothering me and go away!)

And these two, which have different meanings according to the context:

Get out!
Get out of here!

These expressions can mean “go away, leave my presence,” as in “Get out! I never want to see you again,” or “Get out of here! The dam is about to burst.” Or they can be slang expressions of disbelief: “You pay only $600 a month for an apartment in Manhattan? Get out of here!”

Listen for get in your own speech for a day. You may be surprised by how often you use it.

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14 Responses to “The Indispensable ‘Get’”

  • Rich Wheeler

    From popular slang:

    get it on

    Are you ready to start the show? Let’s get it on! (Become filled with energy or excitement; enthusiastically begin)

    I’ve been really tryin’, baby
    Tryin’ to hold back these feelings for so long
    And if you feel like I feel baby
    Come on, oh come on,
    Let’s get it on (have sexual relations)
    – Singer Marvin Gaye in “Let’s Get It On”

  • Danny

    Get up on that chair.
    Get back, honky cat. Better get back to the woods.

  • Donley

    And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
    He was such a stupid get. (Or “git.”)

    –John Lennon

  • Dan Lafrenière

    You omitted the expression “get-go”(start, beginning – noun), as in “He was not that interested from the get-go.”

  • D.A.W.

    Ah! The most popular combination of “to get” plus “on”.
    “Getting it on!”

    Also, upon finding some unwanted person sleeping in your bedroom, yell “Get your pants on and get out of here!”

    Stronger measures are probably called for when the unwanted man is in the bed with your wife, daughter, sister, or girlfriend!
    Clubs, whips, O.K., but please refrain from firearms!
    D.A.W.

  • Lisa

    I added a comment many hours ago, but I guess it didn’t take. Or DWT didn’t ‘get’ it. haha

    What about, “Get up, it’s time to wake up.”, or “Get up on the stage.” or “Get on the bus.”

    I had another example, but I don’t remember it from my earlier comment that never made it in.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    I could probably spend a month teaching the word “get” and all of the idioms and phrasal verbs derived from “get” to my ESL students. And they still wouldn’t “get” it. 🙂

  • Nancy Romness

    I, too, feel sorry for the poor ESL students who have to cope with the many uses of “get.” For each use of the word, Maeve has presented excellent alternatives.
    The use of “get” which annoys me the most occurs when people order food. Instead of saying,
    “I would like the enchiladas rojas…”
    or
    “I’ll order the…”
    or
    “May I please have the…”
    I too often hear
    “Can I get the enchiladas?”
    Aagh. It just sounds so dopey and childlike.

  • Maeve

    Other “get” expressions keep pouring in. I don’t think it would be possible to exhaust the possibilities. Most of these have been “get” as a verb. Maybe I’ll do another on “get” as a noun.

    Nancy, I’ve had several more objections to using “get” to order in a restaurant or a bar. I wonder what the person who says “I’ll get scrambled eggs” would say if the server stepped aside and said, “Go right ahead!”

  • Ed Desautels

    There’s a passive construction involving get I’ve noticed in casual speech for quite some time but which seems to be moving into more formal contexts. A current TV commercial uses the tagline, “How life gets lived.” Ouch.

  • venqax

    OK, to be a parade-rainer-oner, but it really seems that “get” is not as multifaceted as it first appears. In most of the examples I think it has the consistent meaning of something like “arrive at the condition of (being)”. So substituting that phrase in the examples we get (arrive at):

    Don’t [arrive at the condition of being] so nervous when you have an interview.
    How do you [arrive at the condition of being] at Carnegie Hall?

    I can’t [arrive at the condition of being] used to your new hairdo.

    So he mispronounced your name; [arrive at the condition of being] over it.
    Now that everyone is in town, let’s [arrive at the condition of being] together for dinner.

    I know that losing your best friend is difficult, but you’ll [arrive at the condition of being] through it.

    I want my neighbor to [arrive at the condition of being] rid of his vicious dog.

    She’s trapped in a dead-end job and wants to [arrive at the condition of being] out.
    We hope to [arrive at the condition of being] away this weekend.

    Then there are the imperatives with get:
    [Arrive at the condition of being] busy!
    [Arrive at the condition of being] lost!

    And these two, which have different meanings according to the context:
    [Arrive at the condition of being]out!
    [Arrive at the condition of being] out of here!

    The only one that does not fit this pattern is, “I’ve tried and tried to master algebra, but I just don’t get it.” where get, alone, does actually mean “understand or comprehend”.

    Most of the idiomatic expressions mentioned seem to fit this also.
    “How life arrives at the condition of being lived”. Ain’t sayin’ it’s purty, understand.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I have heard some British or Irish people use these two expressions in colorful statements: “I’ll be hanged, if…”
    and “I’ll be buggered, if…”
    I guess that someone could modify these to “I’ll get hanged, if…” and “I’ll get buggered, if…”

    Another such expression is “I’ll be buggered before I’ll do that!” We don’t say such things in North America, except perhaps by men who have served in the U.S. Air Force in England.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    AF veterans of English service would, understandably, refer to being buggered. Is that the intended point? Desperately searching for clarification here…

  • jb

    My two grandmothers used different expressions for the same thing – both of which sounded quaint to my childish ears:

    “Do you get the newspaper?”

    “Do you take the newspaper?”

    Both meant “have it delivered to you.”

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