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TWTS: Sometimes you've just got to say "have got to"

This week, we have got to address a question a listener recently sent us about whether there's anything wrong with saying "have got to" instead of just "have to."

The short answer is no. However, there people are who see "have got to" as redundant, and that's why this gets a little complicated.

There are actually two constructions at work here, and it's worth separating them. The first is "have got," which is synonymous with "have." The second is "have got to" which is synonymous with "must." Both have been around since the 19th century, and both have received their share of criticism.

In "have got," the "got" is definitely redundant, but it's also emphatic and idiomatic, not incorrect.

Imagine you're with a few other people, and you're all trying to come up with $50 in cash. You'd probably each say something like, "I've got $10,” or "I've only got $5." We're guessing that most people probably wouldn't find anything wrong with this.

One of the interesting things about "have got" is that it can only be used in the present tense. You would say "I've got five apples," but you wouldn't say, "I had got five apples." If you were trying to say that you had, at some point, obtained five apples, you'd say, "I had gotten five apples."

Much like "have got," "have got to" gets criticized as redundant. Once again, while it’s true that "got" is redundant, redundancy can be emphatic and is not incorrect. For example, "I've got to get gas on the way home."

This construction also can only be used in the present tense. You wouldn't say, "I had got to get gas on the way home." Instead, you'd say, "I had to get gas on the way home."

Bryan Garner summarizes these constructions nicely in his 2009 American Usage Guide. Garner says, "The phrase 'have got,' often contracted as in 'I've got,' has long been criticized as unnecessary for 'have.' In fact though, the phrasing with 'got' adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic."

We've got to say, that sounds pretty reasonable.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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