"I dunno about morals, but I do got rules."
Bare got is a usage of got that indicates present-tense possession, even though in standard English got functions as a past-tense verb or past participle.
To understand bare got, it is helpful to compare it to other English constructions involving got. For example, all English speakers make use of the have got construction. When followed by a noun phrase, have got indicates possession as in (1):
1) We've got a lot of problems right now.
Similarly, all English speakers can use got as the past tense of get, as in (2):
2) a. I got a big paycheck last month.
b. I got laid off last month.
However, some English speakers may use got on its own to indicate possession in the present tense, as in (3), which has the same meaning as (1):
3) We got a lot of problems right now.
The usage shown in (3) is the one that we will refer to as "bare got."
Who says this?
Jespersen in 1961 describes bare got as a "very recent innovation" which is "particularly frequent in America" (p. 53). Fodor & Smith (1978) describe this phenomenon as a characteristic of some varieties of African American English, but its distribution is certainly wider than that. There has been comparatively little research on the prevalence of bare got in American English, however.
Quinn (2004) mentions that bare got is common in New Zealand English, though she treats it as not significantly different from have got. In a case study of speakers in Toronto by Tagliamonte et al. (2010), bare got was used almost exclusively by men, and more so by those with lower levels of education and those in "blue collar" occupations. It is unclear how widespread this pattern is.
Got as a main verb
Fodor & Smith show that, for many speakers, bare got may occur alongside the auxiliary do in yes-no questions, as in (4a), and in negation, as in (4b):
4) a. Do you got one?
b. You don't got one.
The appearance of do alongside a main verb, in certain contexts including questions and negation, is known as do-support. Fodor & Smith suggest that the fact that we see do-support alongside got implies that, for these speakers, got is functioning as a main verb.
A second potential piece of evidence for the main verb analysis of bare got is that it licenses do-support in tag questions as in (5):
5) We got a lot of problems right now, don't we?
Again, this suggests that got is a main verb because in tag questions, as in other questions, only main verbs co-occur with do.
However, McCawley (1988:506) shows that it is possible to have do-support in a tag question even when the main clause features an auxiliary have. For example, our surveys confirm that the sentence in (6) is very widely accepted by American English speakers:
6) John's got a lot of money, doesn't he?
For this reason, we might be cautious about using (5) as evidence for the main verb status of got.
Restriction to finite contexts
We have seen that some speakers allow got to appear without a preceding auxiliary have. But even for these speakers, got does not behave like a full regular verb. Firstly, for most speakers it cannot take the -ing suffix to form a gerund, as in (7):
7) *It's hard, gotting three kids.
Secondly, for many speakers bare got cannot appear in non-finite contexts, as in (8):
8) a. *She wants to got a lot of money.
b. ?She must got a lot of money.
We suspect that not all non-finite contexts are equal, and that non-finite got without to, as in (8b), is better than got with to, as in (8a). This is based partly on our own intuitions, and partly on the relative ease of finding examples like (8b) on Twitter, in comparison with finding examples like (8a).
Despite this, there are some attested examples of got receiving a stative interpretation following an infinitival particle to, such as in (9):
9) a. "Karrueche don't need to got a big booty to show them how beautiful she are."
(Twitter user @JILSNDER)
b. "A chick needs to got a good ass."
(Twitter user @Kendurks_YFG)
These are among the only examples we could find in which to got receives an unambiguously stative interpretation and thus cannot be explained as a typo for get. Given a sentence like (10), for instance, it is difficult to tell whether we are dealing with a genuine case of bare got, or a mistyped get:
10) "I just started going to the gym but it's so haaaard to keep going but I also want to got a hot body you feel my pain"
(Twitter user @cyrusmysavior)
When got co-occurs with a 3rd-person singular subject, three different outcomes are attested.
In one variety described by Fodor & Smith, got exhibits -s inflection:
11) Lucy gots one.
This illustrates another way in which some speakers treat got like a main verb.
In another variety, the inflection is absent. This is illustrated, for instance, by the title of the following 1998 movie:
12) He Got Game
We might expect to find this pattern among African American English speakers, as the 3rd-person singular -s inflection may be dropped in AAE (Green 2002:36).
A third pattern has been observed by Christina Tortora (2007) and corroborated by Tagliamonte et al. For these speakers, bare got simply cannot co-occur with a 3rd-person singular, and both she got and she gots would be ungrammatical. For such speakers, Tortora claims that do-support in questions and negation is ungrammatical too.
Modal got to
Got may also be used as a modal expressing necessity, when followed by to. Got to is phonologically reduced and is sometimes written as gotta. Like possessive got, got to is found in exactly those places where have got to may also occur, as shown by the examples in (13):
13) a. We've got to leave.
b. We got to leave.
The relationship between possessive got and modal got is not clear. Krug (2000) shows that usage of gotta is widespread in many varieties of British English, and Tagliamonte & D'Arcy (2007) show that the same holds for Toronto English. They further show that some varieties permit gotta to take do-support in questions (parallel to do you got one):
14) We just got here, do we gotta move?
Auxiliary omission with other verbs
Crowell (1959:284) notes that the auxiliary have can be dropped with verbs other than got. Jespersen (1961:44) provides these examples:
15) a. I('ve) done it.
b. He('s) seen him.
c. You('d) better do that.
Both authors suggest that this is characteristic of American English, though the relationship between bare got and auxiliary omission is unclear.
Fodor & Smith argue that bare got is at the "advanced" end of a continuum concerning the behavior of have got with respect to auxiliaries. For the conservative speakers at the other end of the continuum, a have got clause that has undergone VP-ellipsis may only be introduced by a form of have, as in (16a). For "innovative" speakers, the clause that has undergone VP-ellipsis may only be introduced by a form of do, as in (16b). There is also a group that accepts both, which Fodor & Smith term "middle-of-the-road" speakers:
16) a. John's got a swimsuit. I haven't.
b. John's got a swimsuit. I don't.
In their analysis, middle-of-the-road and innovative speakers recognize a main verb got which has essentially the same meaning as have. This verb is associated with an idiosyncratic lexical rule which inserts a semantically empty have in the preceding auxiliary slot. Under ellipsis contexts, this rule of have-insertion is not activated. For "advanced" speakers who have bare got, what has happened is that the lexical rule inserting have has been lost, and got has become a regular verb.
Page contributed by Matthew Tyler on February 7, 2016
Crowell, Thomas L. (1959). Have Got, a Pattern Preserver. American Speech, 34(4), 280–286.
Fodor, Janet & Mary Smith (1978). What Kind of Exception Is Have Got? Linguistic Inquiry 9(1), 45-66.
Green, Lisa (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Jespersen, Otto (1961). A Modern English grammar on historical principles: Part IV (Syntax). London: George Allen & Unwin.
Krug, Manfred (2000). Emerging English Modals: A Corpus-based Study of Grammaticalization. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
McCawley, James (1988). The Syntactic Phenomena of English. University of Chicago Press.
Quinn, Heidi (2004). Possessive have and (have) got in New Zealand English. Presentation at NWAV 33, Ann Arbor.
Tagliamonte, Sali & Alexandra D'Arcy (2007). The modals of obligation/necessity in Canadian perspective. English World-Wide, 28(1), 47-87.
Tagliamonte, Sali, Alexandra D’Arcy & Bridget Jankowski (2010). Social work and linguistic systems: Marking possession in Canadian English. Language Variation and Change, 22(1), 149-173.
Tortora, C. (2007). On morpho-syntactic variation in English dialects. Unpublished handout, Università di Padova.