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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 5; September 03

Seth Column

When GET and when GO?

Seth Lindstromberg

( republished here with thanks to MET, where this piece appeared previous)

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1.0 Introduction

Over the years I have noticed that EFL students frequently have trouble sorting out when to use get and when to use go. Part of the problem is doubtless unclarity about what get means. Accordingly, I begin with a summary drawn from Lindstromberg (1991). In the section thereafter, I try to explain (a) why get and go have different meanings in co-texts where either is possible and (b) why one and not the other may fit into a certain co-text. The final section comprises 25 gapfill exercises (plus explanatory key) which you might choose from or adapt for use with intermediate or advanced students.

2.0 Get: explanation

Basic meaning
Prototypically, get is used in order...
-- to emphasize 'possession' as the end result of an action
-- to be vague about the nature of the action itself.

For example:

(1) "Our cats get one or two mice everyday."

Since cats catch mice with their paws, we may infer that that's how the getting is done here. But the two notions 'catch' and 'with paws' are not part of the meaning of get itself. This may become clearer if you consider that in (1) get could be replaced by receive. Imagine, for example, that the cats now are small wildcats in a zoo and that a zookeeper is talking about the diet the cats are given, freshly killed mice.

In short, get in (1) means only this, 'Result? Possession!'. All the details about manner are inferred from co-text and/or situation of use. Here is another example of how get is vague about manner:

(2) "Dale got another car during the holidays."

Here, depending on the situation of use, the got can be replaced by, for example: bought, was given, received, was sent, leased or stole. What all of these possibilities have in common is that they entail 'possession' (by John) as the final result.

Slight extension of basic meaning
Here are some related but slightly different uses of get:

(3) "She got a promotion."
(4) "She got him to do it."
(5) "She got him laughing."

On first sight, these examples may not seem to have much in common. However, in each case get emphasizes the fact that the complement (the part of the sentence that comes after the verb) is a 'result'. Also, as in examples (1) and (2), (3)-(5) are vague about how the result was achieved. Such vagueness is often appropriate in a communication since it is extremely rare for partners in a conversation to be interested in all the facts. But the result of this or that situation or action does, tend to be the kind of fact that people are interested in. Get is the verb we use to highlight results and downplay details of manner.

If speakers want, instead, to highlight details of manner, they may use a different, more specific verb:

(3a) "She earned/finagled/bought a promotion."
"She bribed her way into a promotion."

(4a) "She persuaded/paid him to do it."
"She talked/flattered/cajoled him into doing it."
"She tickled him until he did it."

(5a) "She tickled him/told him jokes until he was laughing."

Or speakers may add details about manner by, for example, attaching a 'by phrase':

(3b) "She got a promotion by never saying, 'I can't do it'."

(4b) "She got him to do it by telling him she loved him."

But, to repeat, details about manner are never part of the meaning of get itself. They come instead from outright statement in the co-text or from inference.

Similar uses, other patterns Get is very often used to emphasize that a certain state or activity is a result without, again, indication of how exactly how the result is achieved:

(6) "He got up early that morning."
(7) "He got going early that morning."
(8) "He got to stay up late when he was little."

As in the earlier examples, in (6)-(8) get/got tells us only the result:
(6a) up early that morning.
(7a) going early that morning.
(8a) stay up late

Again, if speakers want to be specific about manner, they have to use other wordings. Usually the details don't matter when one is talking, for example, about the act of getting up. But there is an infinity of ways of being more precise if precision is appropriate:

(6b) "He dragged himself/leapt/rolled out of bed and began his day.

(7b) "He forced a triple espresso down his throat and started doing things early that morning. / 'Through force of will he began to do what he had to do early that morning.'

(8b) "He whined until his parents let him.../He was simply allowed to stay up late when he was little."

Get is extremely common in everyday speech because it seems to be human nature to be more interested in results than in processes. For novelists, it may be different.

3.0 Get vs go: explanation


Reaching a destination is a kind of result and so it is not surprising that get is frequently used to indicate 'attainment of destination'.

The first difference between get and go, then, is that, in standard English, get is always followed by an explicit statement of destination (9-10 below) or by a statement of direction which implies a destination (11 below).

(9) "We got into town late."
... home late."
... there in just five hours." (10) "Let's get out at this floor."
(11) "Excuse me, I need to get out (= at this stop/floor)."

Go, on the other hand, can be used without a destination or a direction (though these are often implied by what has been said or written earlier or by the situation of use). In (12) - (15) only go is possible, not get.

(12) "Let's go."
(13) "They went before we got up."
(14) "We're going too fast."
(15) "We went 15 miles out of our way."

Go can not only mean 'move', it can also mean 'begin to move'. Thus, if go is substituted into (9), meanings change-e.g : as follows:

(9a) "We went home late. [= We began our trip home late.] "We went there in just 5 hours." [odd]

The diagram below shows the difference in focus between the verbs go and get.


     go                     go                       get

Thus, "We need to go home in three hours" means 'We need to leave for home three hours (from now)' whereas, "We need to get home in three hours" can mean either 'We need to arrive at home three hours from now' or 'We need to arrive at home within three hours of our starting time, whenever that is'.

Two hard questions

The first question is - Why do we say, "Get out of bed/a taxi/a lift" not "Go..."? We have seen above that we use get whenever the result is of more interest than the distance or the manner in which the distance is travelled. For this reason, the smaller the distance, the more likely we are to use get since small distances are, in themselves, relatively less interesting than long ones. Additionally, get is used, in particular, whenever a threshold or boundary is crossed in just one or two movements of the body.

The second question is - When do we say "Go into/out of a room/a country" and when "Get..."?

We see that go too is sometimes used when speaking of relatively short distances and places with boundaries. The difference is that go focuses on different aspects of the situation than does get.

For example, (16) tells how Ann was moving; went causes us to think about the movement as a kind of process and so it goes nicely with a manner adverb like quietly.

(16) "Ann went into the room quietly."

In (17), on the other hand, the focus is on results - namely, Ann's ending up in the room and Ann's making little noise.

(17) "Ann got into the room without making much noise."

Note that quietly does not go nearly as naturally with get as with go. The reason for this is straightforward. Movements and processes may proceed in this or that manner. Results, on the other hand, have qualities.

Note also that if a specific manner verb such as slipped or stepped were substituted in place of went in (16), meaning - i.e., specification of manner - would be added into the sentence. But replacing got in (17) with a manner verb would mean that two implications would be lost:

-- Being in the room was a result that Ann particularly desired.
-- There was some obstacle to achievement of the result, something such as chairs that could have been tripped over, or potentially creaky floorboards. (An obstacle is a specific kind of threshold.)

Get does not always have these implications of 'desired result' and 'existence of potential obstacle'. They arise in particular situations of use - situations where the distance is great enough for either go or get to be used. These implications do not arise in situations where go either is not possible - e.g., (6) above - or where it has a completely different meaning from get - e.g., (9)/(9a).

Sometimes get is used in cases where there is an 'obstacle' and 'undesired result'.

(18) "Do you think any cold air will be able to get in through that seal around the window?"

A final note: Much of what has been said above about go also applies to come, the converse of go.

Lindstromberg, S 1991 'Get: not many meanings', International Review of Applied Linguistics (IRAL), 29/4:285-301

Use either get, go or come; change the tense as necessary.

  1. We had to ___________ home by 12:00 since that's when our babysitter said she would be expecting us.

  2. I'm ___________ home now. Do you want a lift?

  3. After many adventures and narrow escapes, she ____________ out of the country and phoned her family that she was safe.

  4. We've gone past our floor. We'd better ____________ out here and take the stairs back down.

  5. A: Do you think we'll be able to ________ to France this year?
    B: Yes, I think we have enough free time.

  6. A: Do you think we'll _________ there tomorrow?
    B: If we don't have any further delays we will. Right now our speed is pretty good.

  7. Our chimney's very narrow, do you think Father Christmas will be able to __________ down it without getting stuck?

  8. How is Father Christmas supposed to ____________ into houses that don't have chimneys at all?

  9. Don't worry, all the smoke will ____________ up the chimney.

  10. Because of a broken seal, fumes from the engine ___________ into the drivers' compartment and they almost passed out.

  11. ____________ through that tunnel and you'll see the sea on your left.

  12. If you __________ through that tunnel to the other side, it'll be a miracle. For one thing,terrorists have planted a bomb right in the middle.

  13. If there's no wind, smoke will ___________ straight up.

  14. The filters on these cigarettes are so dense that almost no smoke can _____________ through no matter how hard you suck.

  15. The first rocket was still _____________ up, it exploded.

  16. Despite a clogged fuel line, the second rocket ______________ to 80,000 feet, it's target altitude.

  17. I wasn't able to _____________ on top of the wall as it was too high.

  18. As we were ____________ over the bridge, snow began to fall.

  19. How did you manage to ____________ the bridge? I thought it was blocked because of a bad car crash.

  20. I _____________ to town three or four times a week.

  21. I didn't __________ to town today because I didn't feel like it.

  22. I didn't ___________ to town today because my car broke down half way there.

  23. I couldn't ____________ to town today because I was too busy.

  24. She _____________ through the room as quickly as possible so as not to be seen.

  25. Luckily, she _____________ through the room without being seen.

Explanatory key

  1. get: Focus on destination

  2. going: Focus on starting point

  3. got: Focus on destination; the context suggests difficulty; a boundary was crossed

  4. get: Focus on result/destination; out of a lift; just one or two body movements (i.e., steps)

  5. go/get: Go if the speaker is thinking of starting out and making the trip; get if the speaker is thinking mainly of the destination and also especially if the speaker is imagining certain difficulties such as not getting enough holiday time.

  6. get: Focus on destination; the answer makes it clear that the two people are already travelling so there can be no focus on the beginning of the trip.

  7. get or come: But get might be more natural because of the suggestion of a difficulty and because it would probably be natural for a speaker to be especially concerned with the result (being down).

  8. get: Focus on result (being inside); focus on crossing a boundary from inside to outside; explicit mention of an obstacle

  9. go: This is probably the most natural choice since there is no suggestion of difficulty nor an especial focus on destination. What happens at the bottom of the chimney, in the fireplace, is probably foremost in the speaker's mind; that is, will the smoke billow back into the room or not? Of course, if the speaker is on the roof instead of in the house, come would be the choice instead.

  10. got: Short distance of travel into an enclosed space (like a car or lift); there was an obstacle (a seal); undesired result

  11. go: No suggestion of difficulty; no special focus on destination, if anything, the phrase go through that tunnel focuses on the first two stages of the trip, i.e., going to the tunnel and passing through it and not at all on the third stage (being out of the tunnel). You need to imagine someone pointing at where someone will go into a tunnel rather than where they will come out of it.

  12. get: Suggestion of difficulty; focus on the result (being through and out); no focus on approaching the tunnel as in (11)

  13. go: No suggestion of difficulty; no boundary being crossed; no focus on an endpoint

  14. get: An obstacle (a dense filter); a boundary to cross (out to in); the distance is short; focus on result (being through)

  15. going: No focus on an endpoint; no suggestion of an obstacle

  16. got: Focus on an endpoint; mention of a difficulty

  17. get: Mention of a difficulty; a relatively short distance (probably); Focus on result (being on top); no focus on manner of achieving the result

  18. going: Focus on an intermediate point, not the endpoint

  19. get: Mention of an obstacle; focus on result (being over the bridge, i.e., on the opposite side from where the trip began

  20. go: This is the natural choice if the speaker does not wish to suggest there is any difficulty; use of go means that the speaker is not thinking only of the destination but also, or maybe especially, of the beginning (i.e., getting in the car, starting the drive to town).

  21. go: There is no suggestion of a difficulty; no special focus on the result (being in town) as opposed to the beginning of the trip (getting in the car, etc.) get: Seems most natural here. For one thing, there is a focus on the (unattained) destination and no focus on the beginning of the trip; for another, a difficulty is mentioned.

  22. go/get: Use of get would add the implications that the result (being in town) was especially desired and that being busy was an unwelcome obstacle.

  23. went: Focus on the manner of movement; focus on the middle of the 'trip' rather than on its destination.

  24. got: Focus on results (i.e., being out of the room after having passed through it, not being seen).


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