Get-passive (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Christian Mair, Twentieth-Century English: History, Variation and Standardization (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

In English grammar, the "get-passive" is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb--a form of get plus a past participle.

Unlike more traditional passives with a form of be, passives with get are more common in spoken English than in written English.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The passive in English is usually formed with the verb to be, yielding 'they were fired' or 'the tourist was robbed.' But we also have the 'get' passive, giving us 'they got fired' and 'the tourist got robbed.' The get-passive goes back at least 300 years, but it has been on a rapid rise during the past 50 years. It is strongly associated with situations which are bad news for the subject--getting fired, getting robbed--but also situations that give some kind of benefit. (They got promoted. The tourist got paid.) However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger."
    (Arika Okrent, "Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They're Happening." The Week, June 27, 2013)
  • "This was all there was of the family now, but there used to be more--three sons; they got killed; and Emmeline that died."
    (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884)
  • "[An American Werewolf in London is] about two American guys in their early twenties hiking across the Yorkshire moors. And both of them get attacked by a werewolf."
    (Edgar Wright, quoted by Robert K. Elder in The Film That Changed My Life: 30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark. Chicago Review Press, 2011)
  • “Liz, don't you think there's something suspicious about this guy's ringing up right away to ask if we got chosen for the show?"
    (Leslie Carroll, Reality Check. Ballantine, 2003)
  • "[I]f we don't do him in for killing us, and we get blown to smithereens, and he doesn't, he'll only get twenty years in clink."
    (Alan Sillitoe, Snowstop. HarperCollins, 1993)
  • "So what happened was, we got together and we drafted this letter. She was a black woman from Texas. And when I took a stand for this traveler, she got canned, and I got canned, and they canned this other woman, just to make it look like it wasn't a personal thing."
    (Melinda Hernandez, quoted by Susan Eisenberg in We'll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. Cornell University Press, 1998)
  • "Liz got suckered into taking the graveyard shift at the All-Night Party the same way she'd gotten suckered into every other thankless task in her long parental career . . .."
    (Tom Perrotta, "The All-Night Party." Nine Inches: Stories. St. Martin's Press, 2013)
  • "Sometimes people are afraid to call and talk to someone because they are afraid they will get pressured into something, but they will call and listen to a message."
    (Douglas A. Keipper and Sean M. Lyden, How to Succeed and Make Money with Your First Rental House. Wiley, 2004)
  • Dynamic Meaning
    "The get-passive is sometimes considered informal, and its use has, for this reason, been discouraged. It can, however, be a useful way of making clear that the meaning of the construction as a whole involves an action or event, rather than a state. Contrast:
    They got married.
    The chair got broken.
    with the ambiguous
    They were married.
    The chair was broken.
    The latter examples are ambiguous because they can refer to the process of being married or broken, but also to the state of being married or broken. As get has a more dynamic meaning, the get-passive is often used for actions we do to ourselves (e.g. get dressed). When the action denoted by the verb is carried out by someone else a get passive can imply that the referent of the subject was in some way responsible for what happened, or at any rate that there was a cause. Compare:
    He got picked up by the police.
    She got involved in an argument.
    *The car got found abandoned.
    He was picked up by the police.
    She was involved in an argument.
    The car was found abandoned."
    (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)
  • Characteristics of Get-Passives
    "From the literature, the defining characteristics of the get passive include the following, which may be used as diagnostics to test for its discovery:
    a. Get passives are 'normally used in constructions without an agent' (Leech & Svartik, 1994: 330).
    b. Get passives place 'the emphasis on the subject rather than the agent, and on what happens to the subject as a result of the event' (Quirk & Crystal 1985: 161).
    c. Get passives emphasize the subject referent's condition, which is 'usually an unfavourable condition' (Quirk & Crystal 1985: 161).
    d. Get passives 'describe events that are perceived to have either fortunate or unfortunate consequences for the subject' (Siewierska 1984: 135).
    e. The get passive is likely to have a human subject that is non-agentive, affected and involved (Givón 1983: 119ff). . . ."
    (Brian Nolan, "The Passives of Modern Irish." Passivization and Typology: Form and Function, ed. by Werner Abraham and Larisa Leisiö. John Benjamins, 2006)
  • Get Passive Look-Alikes
    "As with be passives, sentences that look like get passives may actually be active sentences. In the main type of look-alike, get means 'become' and is followed by a participial adjective.

    "Sentence (46) looks like a short get passive, but it is, in fact, an active sentence in which the past participle form complicated is an adjective.
    (46) His explanation is getting complicated.
    Here the verb get expresses the idea of becoming or of coming into a state or condition. Sentence (46) may, for instance, be paraphrased as in (47).
    (47) His explanation is becoming complicated.
    However, get passives can also express events that have no adverse implication, as in (41a), (41b), and (41c), as well as actions that benefit the subject, as in (41d).
    (41a) Fred got examined by a specialist.
    (41b) The mail gets delivered every day.
    (41c) My letter to the editor got published in the Sunday Times.
    (41d) Janice got promoted last week.
    Get-passives cannot occur with verbs that describe cognition (e.g. comprehend, know, understand, etc.)"
    (Ron Cowan, The Teacher's Grammar of English: A Course Book and Reference Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2008)