irregular verbs: gotten, fit, knit

The American past participle of get, gotten, is one of those American things that the British often express real distaste for. I get the feeling that some Brits think it sounds ignorant. Better Half is now shouting from the other room that it sounds uneducated and hillbillyish. It's an example Americans keeping an older form that disappeared in Britain. A lot has been written on this subject. I recommend the following:

For a bit more on the history, see Maven's Word of the Day.

See John Lawler (with help from David Crystal) on why British people often get it wrong when they try to use American gotten. Essentially, with the 'possession', rather than 'acquisition', sense of get, we say have got, not have gotten. This means that the following two sentences mean different things.

I've got a new hat. (= 'I have a new hat.')
I've gotten a new hat. (= 'I obtained a new hat.')

The thing that I find a bit funny about the looking-down-the-nose attitude toward gotten is that it's retained in British English in the participial verb forgotten (hardly an uncommon verb!) and in the adjective ill-gotten.

Americans also have an irregular past/past participle for fit, but this one isn't so old.

US: Before he lost weight, the jacket (had) fit him.
UK: Before he lost weight, the jacket (had) fitted him.

In my dialect (or at least my idiolect!), we do use fitted when describing making something to measure. So:

US & UK: I had that jacket fitted. The tailor fitted me for a jacket.

But according to The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style by Bryan A. Garner, I'm part of a dying breed and others are using only fit as the past tense of fit:

"Just since the mid-20th century, AmE has witnessed a shift in the past tense and past participle from fitted to fit. Traditionally, fit would have been considered incorrect, but it began appearing in journalism and even scholarly writing as early as the 1950s.
The traditionally correct past tense still surfaces—especially in BrE—but in AmE it is becoming rarer (and stuffier) year by year: “A most interesting item in my coin collection is a disk that fitted the pressure-spray nozzle on our apple-orchard pump some 50 years ago” (Christian Science Monitor). Although fitted may one day be extinct as a verb form, it will undoubtedly persist as an adjective fitted sheets."

Presumably the irregulari(s/z)ation of fit is on analogy with hit, which does not change its form in the past or past participle in either dialect.

Incidentally, if a tailor makes you a suit in the UK, it's said to be a bespoke suit. In the US we'd say tailored or made-to-measure, which is perfectly sayable in the UK too. Anything that's made to personal specifications can be bespoke. Checking the web, I got "bespoke vehicles", "bespoke network solutions", "bespoke mirrors", "bespoke browbands" (for horses).

Even more incidentally: Fit is also a recent BrE slang adjective meaning 'attractive'. Of course, this is more related to the 'fitness' sense of fit. I have no idea whether this has currency in the US now--I have heard it there in a British song: "Fit but you know it" by The Streets, which is full of lots of other Briticisms, which I might get around to discussing some day. Right now I'm being amused by a new antonym pairing: fit/fat.

Enough with the incidentals.

Lately, I've been losing my intuitions when it comes to knit versus knitted. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the past tense knit is most likely to be used to refer to the process of making rows of looped-together yarn (or wool as is more commonly said in the UK), and less likely to be used in other senses, like making a whole garment or 'knitting' your brow. According to the aforementioned style guide, past tense knit has taken over. As far as I can tell, I say knit for all but the figurative senses. So, I'd say: Celeste knitted her brow while she knit her scarf.


  1. This reminds me of when I was laughed at for using "boughten" - I know it's a different thing, but it rhymes! :-)

  2. Boughten is something that's not in my own US dialect, but I know about it as the opposite of 'homemade'. You could be laughed at in the US or UK for saying that! :)

  3. Have read several American novels recently (sorry, can't remember details) where the word "shined" was used instead of the more usual "shone". Also, "treaded" for "trod". I was beginning to wonder if there is some kind of movement in the US to regularise irregular verbs. Am Australian BTW.

  4. In re 'knitted' -- I use 'knit' in all verbish places, but say 'knitted' when I mean to describe a garment's composition (i.e. I knit a hat for my mother / I gave my mother a knitted hat)

  5. My American and Canadian friends find the British use of 'fitted' really grating, and went as far as to say that not using 'gotten' in the (to them) appropriate context sounded grammatically incorrect.

    Speaking of rare irregular verb forms, I'll never forget the use of 'clim' for 'climbed' which I once read of in an American study. It cropped up in the dialect of one elderly lady in a small town. Apparently, it was last seen in BrE during the seventeenth century, and has now virtually gone in AmE too. Shame - I rather like it!

  6. And what's with "sended" instead of "sent"?

  7. I was on a tram in Melbourne (Australia) the other day, and an American girl sitting next to me said to her friend "I just sended my brother an SMS .." Later I Googled the word and found a heap of examples.

  8. According to a recent Harvard study, the percentage of verbs that are irregular has fallen from 25% in Beowulf to about 3% today! Verbbusters and the rest will soon be redundant!

  9. I find the use of fit instead of fitted in novels I read very annoying. It grates almost as much as the use of adjectives instead of adverbs by modern sports commentators on radio and TV. I thought that the use of fit was a modern trend but, as you point out, it has been around in AmE for some time.

  10. I just discovered this blog and I had to drop a comment on this post! I'm an American who's lived in the UK for about 15 years. Got/gotten was one of the differences I really tripped over when I first arrrived.

    I remember an poster for a bank that was advertising a spcial offer for new student accounts, with the caption reading something like, "Jane's just got £10!" I thought that was funny, because of course to an American that means "Jane's total net worth is only £10!" A real incentive to bank with that company. :)

    It wasn't quite so funny a couple of months later when my boss noticed that I'd used "gotten" in a letter to a client. I had never known it was considered ungrammatical in Britspeak, so it was doubly irritating to find out that my boss not only considered this on a par with "ain't", but didn't ever seem to believe that it was perfectly normal in American English.

  11. I have to say that I probably wouldn't say "Celeste knitted her brow." As a matter of fact it took an effort to type that. As an obsessive knitter, I frequently find reason to say that I knit (past tense) something, but I almost never say that I knitted something. It's *almost* on a par with saying "casted off". But not quite.

    I do, though, say things like, I have knitted more than 15 pairs of socks (which I have, probably--I've lost track), or I have knitted nearly a pair of socks this week (I wish! Studying for exams). So there's still a place for 'knitted', and I use 'fitted' analogously.

  12. The irregular past that I really can't make sense of is 'dove' as the past tense of 'dive'. In the UK we only say 'dived'.

  13. I am American and I agree, "gotten" is a good word. It means something totally different than "got" sometimes. Althought, I'll admit that when it is combined with modals, I use it interchangeably: "I should have got/gotten it when I was there."

    As for "dove/dived", I usually say "dived", but sometimes "dove", but "dove" only works for simple past; "dived" is the past participle always: "I should have dived into the pool." "I dived/dove into the pool yesterday."

    There is one that I won't say: That is "snuck". That's just bad English. I always say "sneaked", but I hear "snuck" more often in American English.

    I usually say "fit" not "fitted" and "knitted" not "knit". I don't know my logic about this. I don't think I say "treaded"; usually "trod", but I almost never say "tread" in the past tense, but the past participle "trodden" I do say a lot.

    I've never heard "sended", but I'm sure it's like "brung", "brang", "broughten", "boughten", "snuck", "thunk", "ain't", and so on as uneducated English. Although, even I have to say that I have said "thunk" and "aint" when I want to be humorous, but never formally. Usually in "who would have thunk it?" or "Ain't I a stinker?" It's humorous. It's stylistic.

    I think we should talk about was/were more because people mess those two up a lot. Well, that's my piece.

  14. The only reason I know about Fit as in Fitness, attractive and healthy, was from Unseen Academicals (Pratchett.) I did have to look it up. It seems an awkward usage, but then so much teen/young adult slang does, so that doesn't mean anything. I don't like Hot or Fine either, honestly.

    I really don't get the issue with gotten. But then, as an Am/Can/E speaker, that is my norm.

  15. In my line of work, film editing, we are occasionally called upon to synchronize the picture and sound elements of various media. Although this process is largely automated nowadays (AmE?) back in the 90's, when we still physically cut the film, it made up the bulk of an assistant editor's workday. We called this "synching the dailies." The past tense of this was always "sunc," as in "I sunc the dailies yesterday." The spelling might be debatable (as of course we wouldn't have much cause to write this) but the usage and pronunciation was universal and non-controversial. No one said "I synched the dailies yesterday." We spontaneously created an irregular verb.

  16. [Apologies if I've submitted this comment more than once, but it doesn't seem to be working. Can you not make it come up with a message that says "Thank you for submitting your comment", or something?]

    Your first recommended article says:

    "It is generally true that 'gotten' is used for the sense 'obtained; received' ('We've gotten tickets' means 'we acquired tickets') while 'got' is used for the sense 'possessed; owned' ('We've got tickets' means 'we possess tickets'). This distinction cannot be made in British English without using a different word."

    But that is not true. The distinction is made very simply in British English. Adapting your subsequent example:

    I've got a new hat = I have a new hat
    I got a new hat = I obtained a new hat

    Is the simple formulation 'I got', meaning 'I obtained', really not available to Americans? Do you always have to use the (to my ears) cumbersome formulation 'I've gotten' instead? Surely not! So is there any difference in meaning between 'I got the tickets' and 'I've gotten the tickets'? If not, then why ever use the latter?

    Similarly, John Lawler quotes David Crystal as follows:

    "AmE can make such distinctions as the following:
    'They've got to leave' = 'they must leave' vs
    'They've gotten to leave' = 'they've managed to leave'."

    But again this distinction can be made very simply in British English. One can say 'They got to leave', which as far as I can see means exactly the same as 'They've gotten to leave', but is shorter.

    I've often heard it said that the word 'gotten' is a useful one that we British lost long ago but that you Americans kept. I came to this blog trying to find out exactly what it means, with a view perhaps to begin using it myself. But having read your piece and the articles you link to, it seems to me that if I started saying it, even if I managed to grasp the rules and used it correctly, it would just be a pointless affectation. 'Gotten' doesn't seem to convey any shades of meaning that can't be conveyed more simply using 'got'.

    ... Or does it? Have I missed something here?

  17. Graham: Your comment has only come through once, so perhaps something funny was happening with Blogger at the time.

    Of course, BrE can distinguish meanings in various ways, but it's also true that many miss the point that AmE is making distinctions in 'got' and 'gotten'. But in the last example, the BrE version doesn't just have fewer words, it's lost some meaning, as it's gone from the present perfect to the simple past tense. These are not completely interchangeable, so I don't think that "They got to leave" and "They've gotten to leave" are exactly the same.

    In later posts I discuss more about 'have got' (I think there's another post about it somewhere, but Blogger is being slow and I've got to go to bed soon!) and about the past versus the perfect.

  18. As an American, I think I am more likely to use 'knitted' as a past tense when talking about bones than when talking about yarn. 'I knit a scarf last week.' 'After breaking his leg, the bones knitted cleanly.'

  19. I think I am more likely to use 'knitted' as a past tense for bones than for yarn. "I knit a scarf last week." "After breaking his leg, the bones knitted cleanly."

  20. Thank you for your reply, Lynne. I see what you mean. I think I have now gotten the point of 'gotten'.

    (May I suggest that you could clarify your original article by translating 'I've gotten a new hat' as 'I have obtained a new hat' instead of 'I obtained a new hat'.)

  21. For reasons I've never really understood I — along with many other British speakers — generally avoid had got as the past of have got. Nobody on this thread has used the form had gotten. Is that a coincidence, or is there an avoidance of the form similar our British prejudice?

  22. I think it's a coincidence. I don't think most Americans don't use "had got" as a past of "have got" either (at least I don't), but there is nothing strange about "had gotten".

    For example, you could say "He asked me to get him coffee, even though I had already gotten it."

  23. Anonymous

    Yes, that would translate into BrE — in our sense of have got:

    He offered to fetch me a coffee but I'd already got one

    Can you think of an example with uninterrupted had gotten? Could you say something like this?

    I'd gotten a coffee for him so I didn't offer to make tea

  24. As an American my first impression of "they got to leave" is that they were allowed to leave (perhaps when others weren't given such permission).

    For example, a child might say to his or her parent, "That's not fair -- so and so got to do that!"

  25. For this Brit, They got to leave means 'they eventually left', implying:
    • possibly that they were allowed to leave
    • more likely that they managed to leave though their own efforts.

  26. Regarding "had gotten", that strikes me as a inappropriate mix of registers. Using "I had [past participle]" puts it in a register where it's more appropriate to say "received" (or "bought"). The verb form is too fancy of the informal register of "got".

    1. I think people have just become too lazy to use more appropriate words such as received or acquired. “I received a letter yesterday.” AmE tend to say, “ I gotten a letter yesterday” It hurts my brain and sensibilities just to think of examples for ‘gotten’. The one which causes me most grief is American television advertisements foist upon Australia, where fit is used instead of fitted. “A powerful motor fit into a small casing” instead of “...fitted into a small casing.” I find it an abomination.

    2. I'm not sure why I've approved this comment, which shows a shocking willingness to make things up. No one says "I gotten".

    3. I am very impressed by Unknown's use of 'foist' to head the present-participle phrase 'foist upon Australia'. Lesser linguists would have used 'foisted'. And to be fair, lynneguist, you should acknowledge that Unknown has confessed to a repugnance to the very unfortunate AmE 'gotten', and to a consequent difficulty in exemplifying it.
      The point about 'where fit is used instead of fitted' is also spot on

  27. "one of those American things that the British often express real distaste for"

    The word "that" should be "which".

    In fact the phrase itself should be "one of those American things for which the British often express real distaste" given that sentences should never end with a preposition.

    1. Oh dear. Apologies. Maybe I shouldn’t make derogatory comments so late at night. As a writer, I am usually more careful (and pedantic) with the written word.

  28. No, it should be 'that' because it's a restrictive relative clause, and restrictive relative clauses can take 'that' in both British and American.

    And the fact that the sentence (a) was a sentence and (b) ended with a preposition provides conclusive evidence that sentences can end with prepositions.

    I recommend David Marsh's (the Guardian Style Guide editor) discussion of 'zombie rules':

  29. I've just been listening more carefully than before to Ethel Waters 1925 re-recording of her 1921 hit Down Home Blues. Somebody — quite possibly Ethel herself — made considerable improvements to the lyrics, with some delightful variation on had, got and gotten. Thus:

    Woke up this morning, the day was dawning, 
    My loving daddy was not about 
    And he's got that loving' that always makes me shout
    And I hope he comes back before it all gives out

    Now he was no true man, but then a new man
    Could never tempt me or make me glad
    Yet I need a good man, I mean a good man, bad
    'Cause I ain't been gotten, that don't mean I can't be had


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)