Get: the Surprisingly Difficult Three-Letter Word

Some of the hardest parts to learn in a language are some of the shortest and seemingly simplest words. English has a lot of very short words that native speakers use very often to mean a huge variety of things. One of these surprisingly difficult words is the unimposing word “get.”

The general idea with the word “get” is coming together or coming closer, but this can be expanded to a huge variety of meanings. This guide is quite extensive, so it might be difficult to learn everything at once. Try reading a few sections at a time, mastering those usages, and coming back another day for the rest! "Get" can fall into the following categories:

Receiving and giving
Arriving and moving
Receiving actions
Possession and relation
Common idioms

Receiving and Giving

One of the easiest uses of “get” is the idea of receiving or acquiring something.

What did you get for your birthday?
I got a new bike.
I hope that I get a good grade on the test.

Each of these uses can be understood by simply replacing the word “get” with the equivalent version of “receive” or “acquire.” These two words, however, sound very formal and stilted to a native speaker in everyday use, so most of the time English speakers will just use “get.” It should be noted that the only way to know whether the subject is being given an object by someone else (receiving), or the subject has somehow gotten it for himself/herself (acquiring), is to look at the context of the sentence.

“Get” can also be used to mean the opposite, with the idea of giving or intending to give rather than receiving.

Can you get me a pencil?
I got my sister a souvenir when I was on vacation.

So how do you know when it means “receive/acquire” and when it means “give”? If there is an indirect object, the subject of the sentence is giving the thing to the indirect object. Otherwise, the subject of the sentence is acquiring it.

I (subject) got a cookie (direct object) from the store.

There is no indirect object, so here there is the idea of receiving/acquiring.

I (subject) got my dad (indirect object) a cookie (direct object) from the store.
I (subject) got a cookie (direct object) from the store for my dad (acting as indirect object). 

In these two cases, it is obvious that the subject is getting the cookie for a third, indirect object, so the meaning is more along the lines of “give.”

It's never easy deciding which pastry to get.
It's never easy deciding which pastry to get.

Arriving and Moving

Another common use of “get” is to talk about arriving to a place. You can see that the idea of things coming together is also present in a sense here, but instead of an object coming to a person, a person or thing is instead coming to a destination.

When I got to class, I sat down.
The postcard should get to France next week.
Don’t stay awake until I’m home; I’ll be getting home late tonight! 

We can rework these sentences to use the word “arrive” in all of these cases, but it sounds very strange and formal.

Many simple movements can also be described using the word “get.”

Get up – to go from a sitting or laying down position to standing up; also, to get out of bed in the morning

I got up at 6 today.

Get away – to leave the current place or situation

I thought it would feel good to get away for a while on vacation after all the stress at work.
Get away from me! You’re bothering me.

Becoming and Making

Just as “get” can describe arriving to a physical place, it can also describe changing into something different and “arriving,” so to speak, at a new state.

My hands get cold when I’m outside in the winter.
The mother noticed that her children were getting old.
Make sure you don’t get lazy towards the end of the school year!
Let’s get started!

“Get” in these cases is again a much more natural version of the word “become.” "Get" can also be used to describe the cause of the becoming.

The rain got my shirt wet.
Being in class too long gets me sleepy.

Receiving actions

“Get” can signify that something has been received, but it can also suggest that someone has been the recipient of an action.

My phone got stolen yesterday.
I hope the cookies don’t all get eaten before I get home.
My friend doesn’t think he’ll get accepted into his favorite university.

“Get” in this case works very similarly to the word “be” in the passive voice. It adds a bit more excitement to the sentence, however, as the word emphasizes the quick change and the actual event of the action. “My phone was stolen yesterday” suggests that in some way my phone was stolen yesterday. Saying “My phone got stolen yesterday” emphasizes the fact that, all at once, someone else decided to steal your phone. It changed from being in your possession to no longer being yours.

Inexperienced players often get beaten.
Inexperienced players often get beaten.


Also related to the idea of receiving is the idea of receiving something in your mind, that is to say, understanding it.

I don’t get how to do calculus.
He didn’t get the joke.

“Understand” doesn’t sound as unnatural as some of the other replacements for “get” listed above, but especially for quick sentences and replies “get” is slightly more idiomatic in some cases.

Possession and Relation

Another usage you might come across is maybe not quite as grammatically correct, but still quite common to hear. The expression "have/has got" can be used informally to show ownership or relation. The past participle of "got" should actually be "gotten" (I have gotten, you have gotten, he/she has gotten, etc.), but this usage breaks this rule.

He's got two cousins who live in Idaho.
I've only got a sandwich for lunch.
I'm afraid I've got some bad news.

Common idioms

“Get” is such a common word that it’s hard to describe every possible usage, but keeping these ideas in mind, hopefully you’ll be able to understand on your own the next time you come across the word!

Below is a list of very idiomatic expressions that you might come across yourself.

Get lost! – Go away! Leave me alone! (careful, this isn’t a very polite thing to say!)
Get a life – you might say this to someone who spends too much time doing unimportant things
Get sick – a euphemism for “to vomit” (although it can also simply mean “become sick.” Pay attention to the context!)
Get it – a common way to use the “understanding” meaning. If someone shows you something you don’t understand, you might say “I don’t get it.”
Don’t get any ideas – something you say to someone when you think they might do something sneaky or mischievous
Get in trouble – this describes a situation when an authority figure has found out about something wrong you’ve done and punishes you
Get into trouble – this expression looks very similar to the above, but refers to being in the situation of doing something wrong, not the punishment for it
Get going – this expression has the idea of starting something. You can get going on any activity; a teacher might say “Let’s get going!” to begin class, for example. Otherwise, it can simply mean “leave.”
Get in – this is another way of saying “to be accepted.” For example, “I got in to my top-choice university.”


Have you come across any other meanings of the word "get"? Let us know in the comments. If you'd like to learn some more English tricks, consider studying abroad at one of our schools.

Here are some more difficult words you might be interested in:

Fun vs. Funny

Here vs. There

Ensure vs. Insure vs. Assure

A while vs. Awhile vs. While

Share this with your friends