Scott Thornbury explains how 'have got' came to have its modern meaning and usage.

Before asking my question, I would like to thank you for the wonderful material you make available to us, teachers. You are fantastic. My question: I was visiting your articles on the Present Perfect and I found this: "We often use the present perfect to give new information, reporting events that have occurred just before the present time, e.g. There's been a serious accident on the bypass; I've won a competition; Paula has got a new job. The present perfect is therefore common with just and already, e.g. Your parents have just arrived; Paula has already got a new job."


And I got confused because I had always thought that have got was something like an expression, but not present perfect. To me they are really different. For example: He has got blue eyes; He has got a new job are very different from He has lived there for three years.


Could you please help me understand? Is got in your sentence the past participle of get? In that case they can be confusing to people like me.




You are quite right in assuming that have got is 'something like an expression'. But it is also an expression that originated in the present perfect of the verb to get. Hence, it takes the form of the present perfect but, in most cases anyway, has present tense meaning. You can see how this happened if you think of the literal meaning of the present perfect of get:

I have got a new car, which can mean I have acquired a new car

Since I have acquired the car, it is safe to assume that the car is still in my possession. In fact, this is one of the implications of choosing the present perfect over, say, the past simple:

I have locked the door implies that the door is still locked. (Compare: I locked the door).

Likewise, I have caught a cold implies that I still have the cold.

So, I have got / bought / acquired / purchased … etc. a car = I still have the car. (Note that in American English, this would be rendered as I have gotten a new car).

Over time, this present tense implication has become the primary meaning of have got. Such that, in spoken English, it’s common to hear the elliptical form I got, meaning I have, as in I got rhythm!

This idiomatic shift of meaning is not specific to have got. The same thing has happened with going to. In sentences like I’m going to write a letter, the form am going is simply a present continuous form that has become fixed as a marker of future meaning. In Shakespeare’s day, I’m going to meant, literally, I’m moving in the direction of. Over time, this expression became grammaticalized, so that it can now be reduced (in spoken English) to gonna: I’m gonna write a letter. This drift, from self-standing, non-idiomatic lexical items to dependent, idiomatic grammatical ones, is extremely common process across all languages. Think of the French negative marker ne … pas, which started life as meaning not a step, as in il ne va pas (= he not go a step), but, which shed its connotation of movement, and became generalized to all verbs: il ne mange pas  ( = he doesn’t eat).  A similar process accounts for many modal constructions in English, such as used to, had better and, of course, have got to.

When teaching have got, it is generally useful to teach it in conjunction with have (meaning 'to possess') and underline that they both cover the same function. The essential difference would be a matter of formality (have being more formal than have got) so you the sentences I have a problem and I've got a problem differ only in terms of when you might use them.

However, it is important to note that in questions and negative sentences, have requires the auxiliary verb do but have got does not:

  • Do you have a bicycle
  • I don't have a bicyle
  • Have you got a bicycle?
  • I haven't got a bicycle

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