When something happens to us and we’re reporting that action in a passive (“I was eaten alive”) rather than active (“they ate me alive”) sense, we’re usually content to use the verb “to be”, with whatever conjugation is called for: “I was taken”, “they were scolded”, “we’re going to be enlightened”. It’s a tense or form that tends to be preferred when we’re focussing on what has been done to the thing or person in question rather than on whoever or whatever performed the action — or when the agent of the action is unknown or simply unimportant.
But increasingly, at least colloquially, we’re reaching for the verb “to get” when using the passive sense — and especially when something especially bad or good is happening to the subject and when that subject is a person. When Donald Trump points his finger at you symbolically, you’re perhaps more likely to exclaim “I got fired!” than to declare the more neutral “I was fired”. “She got screwed over” packs more of a proverbial punch than the gentler “she was screwed over”; similarly, to say that “he got promoted” or that “she got seduced” puts more emphasis on the animate subject and on the positive action, despite it being expressed in the passive voice.
According to Arika Okrent, in her article “Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening” in The Week (June 27, 2013), “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. … However, the restrictions on its use may be relaxing over time and get-passives could get a whole lot bigger.”
In Junichi Toyota’s Diachronic Change in the English Passive, he makes an important observation, according to Rose Rittenhouse’s review of the book, arguing “that the get-passive overwhelmingly focuses on an animate subject that is more involved in the action affecting it.” Clarifying this theory in some detail, Anja Wanner’s book Deconstructing the English Passive outlines several restrictions or identifying qualities of the get-passive, as discovered and described by various linguists in the last few decades:
- “The get-passive receives a more dynamic interpretation than the be-passive (Quirk et al., 1985)”
- “The get-passive often has adversative — and sometimes beneficial — interpretation (Chappell, 1980; Carter and McCarthy, 1999), and reflects the speaker’s attitude towards the event (Lakoff, 1971). This characteristic of the get-passive has been traced back to its very beginning in the 17th century (Givon and Yang, 1994).”
- “The subject of the get-passive is generally animate and, although underlyingly the object of the verb, is interpreted as somehow responsible for the action (Arce-Arenales, Axelrod and Fox, 1994; Givon and Yang, 1994; Huddleston and Pullum 2004). In a sentence like Mary got shot on purpose, Mary is not the agent of shot, but she is considered to be somehow responsible for the event (having brought the event about through some action of hers). This is also known as the “secondary agent” reading (Roeper, 1987).”
- Finally, and perhaps most interestingly for some, “the get-passive is used more often in American than in British English (Sussex 1982) and is also acquired earlier in American English than in British English (Meints 2003).”
It’s interesting that our growing tendency (by using the get-passive with more frequency — especially in America) seems to be turning the passive back into a more active voice, perhaps suggesting that the latter is a more natural expression and reflection of the way we perceive and view our world, and that the passive is losing its place in the language. If many linguists and style guides had their way, we would steer clear of the passive voice altogether: it’s been widely discouraged for some time now. In 1926 Fowler advised against it, claiming that doing so “sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.” As Thomas Hobbes said in 2001, “In general, the passive voice should be avoided unless there is good reason to use it, for example, in this sentence, which focuses on ‘the passive voice’.” (The Blackwell Guide to the Modern Philosophers).
Got milk? Got the get-passive?