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I was talking about what happened to me a few years ago. When I said, "I got surprised to find out ....., or "The plant got damaged because of the typhoon." my sentences were corrected by a native speaker of English like "I was surprised" or "The plant was damaged." I was told that the first two sentences wouldn't sound natural. I'd like to know why they don't sound natural. Could you explain that, please? I wonder if it has someting to do with the time.

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    You're too fond of the verb to get. Idiomatically this can be used in contexts where to be[come] is more likely/correct. But it tends to sound "colloquial, uneducated" anyway, so I suggest you get used to using was instead of got wherever it seems "credible". You'll sound more like a native speaker that way. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 15 '14 at 4:32
  • @FumbleFingers I didn't realize it. No textbooks explain what you explained here. Thank you very much. – tennis girl Jul 15 '14 at 4:45
  • But it's still difficult to figure out when I can use "get" and when I cannot. – tennis girl Jul 15 '14 at 4:53
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    @ tennis girl: I don't know Japanese (I assume you're a native speaker), but I have a suspicion there's something about using to get instead of to be in examples like yours that matches some aspect of Japanese usage. But note that to get surprised to find out... is totally unidiomatic, whereas your plant got damaged example is quite common (both common = widespread and common = [slightly] uncouth). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Jul 15 '14 at 4:57
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    Note that OAD says "In North American English, got and gotten are not identical in use. Gotten usually implies the process of obtaining something (he has gotten two tickets for the show), while got implies the state of possession or ownership (he hasn't got any money)." – jtbandes Jul 15 '14 at 6:27
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From BBC Learning English...

Get is more informal and is frequently used in speech; become is more formal and is more often used in writing. When used with adjectives, get indicates growth or development and can therefore be used as the preferred alternative to become in an informal register.

There are many other constructions where "correct" (idiomatically "normal") use of get may be tricky for learners, but we're focussing here on get + adjective. Taking OP's examples plus a few more...

1: ? I got surprised to find my wife was having an affair (non-idiomatic)
2: The tree got damaged in the storm (informal version of was damaged)
3: My wife got angry when I asked her about the affair (informal version of became angry)
4: ? My wife got red when I asked her about the affair (non-idiomatic version of turned red, blushed)
5: That's when things got nasty (informal version of turned nasty).
6: ? At first she got defensive and said he had seduced her (usually non-idiomatic - see below)
7: ? Finally she got tearful and begged me to forgive her (also usually non-idiomatic)
8: ? After talking for many hours, I got satisfied that she still loved me (always non-idiomatic)
9: But my bedtime mug of cocoa got cold during the argument, so I was still annoyed with her

I would say #6 and #7 are usually "non-idiomatic" because many native speakers wouldn't use get there unless they specifically intended to convey the sense that she was in complete control of her emotions at the time (and was trying different approaches to "win" the argument).

Even I can't decide whether #9 is "idiomatically acceptable" - it seems to be some kind of borderline case for me, but no doubt others will draw the line somewhere different. All I can say is few native speakers would accept #2 or #4 above, but exactly why some usages of get are okay and others not is obscure.


TL;DR: Many aspects of how to get is used are subtle and/or not universally recognised (see the US "got" vs "gotten" distinction, for example, which is indifferently honoured by those BrE speakers who've now adopted the latter term).

My advice to learners is not to be seduced by the idea that frequent use of got will make you sound more like a native speaker. Usually if you get it right no-one will even notice - but you're bound to get it wrong sometimes. And although native speakers will invariably notice the "errors", they probably won't point these out to you - precisely because they don't know how to explain what's wrong in simple terms.

In short, learn the appropriate use of less informal/slangy alternatives like was, became, turned, went, and stick to these except where you often hear native speakers using got. Don't simply gravitate towards got because it seems like you can just learn one verb for all contexts. Unfortunately, it's not that easy!

  • You perfectly explained what I wanted to know here. At the same time I realized that my understanding of how to use "get" was completely wrong. It was eye-opening to me.I bear in mind what you wrote here, which I've never thought about before, and want to improve my English. Thank you so much for these great explanations. I'm very grateful. – tennis girl Jul 16 '14 at 0:00
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The first example sounds entirely unnatural to a native speaker. The second is a little ambiguous: "got" is more colloquial than "was"; "damaged because of the typhoon" is a comparatively elevated locution: so "got" feels out of place there. A native speaker might, however, use "got" to say the same thing in a simpler way, e.g. "The tree got blown down in the storm." That sentence is simpler because all the words are monosyllables, and because their meanings are less abstract: "tree" is a narrower, more concrete category than "plant"; "blown down" less abstract than "damaged". So the more colloquial verb fits right in.

Which is not to say that "was" in place of "got" would be wrong in that sentence: both would be equally idiomatic. I don't want to give the impression that there's a simple rule here: this is very much one of those areas where you will just have to develop a feel for idiomatic usage.

  • Thank you. Yes, I'll have to develp a feel for that. – tennis girl Jul 16 '14 at 0:03

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