Thursday, April 11, 2019

Do You Get It?

Kristine Fielding teaches ESOL at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas.

The word “get” is hard to get.

It does not have a set definition. It frequently embraces new meanings as technology requires, expanding and enveloping to absorb new semantical shapes, much like a boneless sea creature manipulating its form to acquire a new source of food.

Its ubiquitous use proves how flexible the word is. Not only does the word “get” have multiple meanings by itself, it is also used in a variety of phrasal verbs. An ESL/EFL student trying to communicate with native speakers in authentic settings can become confused when native speakers use “get” instead of solid verbs, or those with firm meanings.

As usual, this post is prompted by a recent discussion with a student. The student specifically requested help on how to use the word “get.” Since she was in a low level class, shape-shifter words like “get” were not covered. I told her I would compile some information for her, and we would discuss the material after class.

I realized “get” has at least three possible definitions, not counting phrasal verbs (which I was not going to address since phrasal verbs are like the fantastical Kraken—a beast of its own nature). This is what I came up with. *Disclaimer: I am not saying these are the only definitions, just the ones I gave my student.

Get: Acquire. Perhaps one of its most elementary usage since we often ask “Did you get my email?” I explained to my student that “acquire” included both “obtain” and “receive.” My student worked at a fast food restaurant. She said she is often asked to “go get” something from the back. I also explained she “got” her high school diploma before coming to the United States to study. So “get” can mean either you retrieve something as requested, or you receive something from someone. It is easy to imagine a person obtaining a physical object or working hard to receive an object.

Get: Become. This definition seems a bit more abstract. “I am getting older” is hard to imagine if you are stuck on “get” as a physical action. “I am acquiring years of age” is a little clunky. This is a good example of the pervasive use of the word—it has been co-opted to the point that the meaning of the sentence it’s being used in loses its edge of reality. There comes a point when we “advanced” English speakers no longer use words as they were originally meant. Slang, anyone?

Get: Understand. Using “get” as a synonym for “understand” is a simple switcharoo for the most part. One trouble, though, is knowing if “understand” is the synonym the user is intending. “Do you get cold?” could be asking if you understand the idea of “cold,” the word “cold,” or if you actually ever feel cold.

As I explained to my student, context is everything in determining which “get” a person is using. Perhaps this is the crux of “get” and other words like it, such as “put.”

If I was going to teach “get” with the above meanings, I would use a listening activity since our students are more likely to come into contact with the word during casual conversation. I would write two to four words on the board, depending on students’ level: obtain, receive, become, and understand. Assuming students are already familiar with the words I put on the board, I would model the activity for students by reading a sentence strip. “I hope I _____ a great TOEFL score!” Students would have to choose the missing word from those on the board. This allows students to focus on just two to four definitions.

In partners, students would read similar sentence strips, choosing the missing word. For additional practice, you could use a variety of verb tenses.

The next step would be for students to read additional prepared sentence strips, but this time the word “get” is used in the strip instead of a blank. Students must decide which definition “get” is using in each strip.

Finally, students could write their own sentence strips about topics they talk about every day, such as “Did you get the homework assignment from Ms. Fielding?” and then have another set of partners discuss the meaning of “get.”

As a homework assignment, students could watch a video clip of a conversation and count how many times “get” or its variations are used. After counting the “gets,” students could paraphrase the conversation so the teacher can check for understanding.

As a native speaker, I do not often think about the intricacies of English; however, as an ESL teacher, I find distilling the basics of English a rewarding challenge. My student who asked about “get” had a better understanding of how the word is used after our conversation. Success!


Comment from Nathan D Horowitz
May 27, 2019 at 5:29 am

Great thoughts and exercises. After some head-scratching a few years ago, I decided that the underlying commonality of most or all of the uses of “get” is that the word brings together Concept A and Concept B. Concept A is the subject, and Concept B can be a thing or a condition. “She got dinner”: Concept A is “she,” Concept B is “dinner.” “We got up”: Concept A is “We,” Concept B is “up.”

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