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Different meanings of the verb get

Verb get: different meanings

Ирина Пономарева (Irina Ponomareva)

The Multiple Faces of the English Verb Get

What does the verb get mean in English? That’s a one million dollar question: the correct answer would be, it doesn’t actually mean anything at all. Surprised? Well, what I mean is, it doesn’t mean anything taken out of context. Regarded by itself, it is but a set of three random, useless letters; but the magic of the English language is such that as soon as you give it context, it miraculously acquires all kinds of different meanings.

Let’s take a look at a few examples, just to get started:

  1. You are doing very well: I give you all those complicated sentences to read, and you get them all
  2. I get to work by car
  3. Get to work now!
  4. Please go and get your sister
  5. I believe it’s time to get my parcel from the post office

Now let us look at each of them in turn.

In the first example a teacher is praising a student, obviously a language learner, for having advanced very well in the target language, and get becomes a synonym of understand. The two verbs are, in fact, completely interchangeable in this context.

The second sentence means that the person who says it routinely uses his or her privately owned vehicle to transfer him or herself from the place of residence to the place of work, but, surprisingly, the very similar example number three means a completely different thing. In this case the boss yells at a subordinate to stop fooling around and actually do something.

Number four is simple – the brother (or another sister) should go wherever the sibling in question is hiding and fetch her. Number five is not unlike – picking up a parcel that wasn’t delivered to your door for some reason is another good opportunity to use get.
Now there are some nice expressions like “to get married” or “to get engaged”, which have to do with love, and a less nice one, “to get tired”, which is more likely about work (though, I say, who knows?)

And wait till I get to phrasal verbs and idioms (gosh, is there a way to say anything in English without a get in it somewhere? I think I’m getting addicted… er… sorry!) What are phrasal verbs? Well, they are combinations like “get along”, “get on”, “get away with”, etc…, and some of them also have multiple meanings. On second thought, I won’t dwell on them here: they merit a separate article.

I must warn you though – the verb get might look like a universal substitute for many other English verbs, such as, to name but a few, receive, become, come, go, understand, fetch, pick up, etc…  To a native speaker it would be only natural to use it in all those contexts and many others, but if you are just learning English and are not absolutely sure of your ground, be careful with your get’s. This verb is so dependent on the context that it’s very easy to go wrong with it, and I suggest that you read a lot of original English books and articles to develop an intuitive understanding of get. To a beginner, it can get utterly confusing, but with time you’ll get used to it, and I promise you that.

One attractive thing about the ubiquitous get is that when you use it masterfully, it makes your English sound cool and educated at the same time, and in no way primitive, and that’s an achievement for a three-letter verb.

But now I had better stop it, because I don’t want my readers to get a headache. See you next time.