Grammar Thursday: You’ve got mail!

Have you “got” mail, or have you “gotten” it?

“You’ve got mail!”

What is AOL trying to say there, exactly? It seems like “You have mail!” would be more proper, but that’s not what they chose.

It’s attempting to be deliberately conversational and casual, to get people comfortable with using email, which at the time was a weird, alien thing for a lot of folks. It also helps counteract the perception that AOL is/what a soulless online leviathan in search of world domination—nope, just a friendly dude!

It’s the idea brought to fulfillment recently by some politicians who will remain nameless: if you talk like you’re dumber than you are, people will identify with you more and be slower to realize you’re a tyrant.

I think that also, rhetorically, the little twinge of impropriety you hear in “You’ve Got Mail!” probably indicates that the speaker is excited about your having mail. When people are really exercised about something, they don’t speak so good (“We was robbed!”) — and indeed, if you listen to the original recording, the guy sounds pretty happy for you. Surprised and overjoyed, in fact.

The rhetorical term for a mistaken or deliberate grammatical substitution is “enallage” — actually, “We was robbed!” (substituting the singular verb for a correct plural verb) is a great example. And aside from conveying emotion, the enallage makes the usage more memorable.

“You’ve got” seems to be the standard contraction. Consider “We’ve got company!” or “You’ve got a package at the front desk.” I don’t know why, but I also don’t know why people begin sentences with “I just wanted to let you know that [thing I intend],” rather than just saying “[thing I intend].”

It really should be “You got mail” or “You’ve gotten mail,” right? It’s a little weird to announce an event (an email arriving in your mailbox) by describing an ongoing condition. Unless you delete all your old messages, mail continues to be a thing that you have (or have got) in perpetuity. Imagine the AOL guy saying “You’ve got two children,” and think about how weird it seems.

Okay, now Wiktionary is telling me that, although an American that wanted to use “get” in the past perfect would say “you’ve gotten mail,” in UK English “you’ve got mail” would be proper. How Un-American, Online!

11 Comments on “Grammar Thursday: You’ve got mail!”

  1. Genevieve #

    I was leaning towards the “you’ve gotten” as the proper form that was being subverted… but Stokes’ commentary has me thinking. Aside from the “UK correct” vs “US correct” issue, actually. The question of whether email is an “ongoing condition” is an interesting one – especially at the time, when email was relatively new and not quite popular, it probably WAS more likely that people would delete their messages as they finished with them, for two reasons: 1)they were working under the influence of the “snail mail” corollary (you wouldn’t leave a physical letter in your physical “inbox” once you’d read it) and 2)it was largely used for casual and relatively unimportant correspondence that wouldn’t be strictly “worth” keeping (especially web-based mail – they weren’t managing inter-office memos and certainly not bill payment receipts, etc, yet).

    I think it’s a likely bet that AOL did, in fact, expect each occurrence of new mail to be a singular event, more akin to the “we’ve got company!” or “I’ve got nothing better to do” than the “you’ve got two children” – all are “wrong” but the first two don’t *sound* quite as wrong somehow, and are far more accepted colloquially. Anyway, as Merlin Mann would say, our email inboxes probably SHOULD be empty by default, and we should manage our email each time we receive it. My Yahoo! inbox has 7531 items in it – presumably ALL things I thought were really important and that I would go back to eventually (this despite the fact that I have a total of 47 folders, dedicated to organizing emails I’ve already managed). That’s probably a problem…


  2. Leslie #

    A couple of notes:

    Calling “you’ve got” a construction that makes you sound “dumber” or contains a “twinge of impropriety” or – god forbid! – is just plain “wrong” makes me cringe. Really, guys? Not even remotely true. Language is allowed to have irregular forms; “have got” happens to be one of them. Language is also allowed to have forms that you wouldn’t use in an academic paper on, say, jet propulsion – “have got” also happens (probably) to fall into this category, as does 90% of what you and I say every day.

    So, where and why do we use “have got”? To me, it looks like there are multiple things going on here. First, the present perfect (have/has + past participle) is used, in some contexts, to denote an action that was completed or came to the speaker’s attention in the immediate past. Contrast “the mail has arrived” vs. “the mail arrived.” “Have got” in “you’ve got mail” parallels this form, indicating something you *just* got.

    Second, at least partially related – British English tends to prefer “have got” to denote possession (cf. “I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts”). American English usually prefers to just use “have,” and drop the “got,” but for whatever reason, we borrow the British style in casual contexts, both when talking about immediate past action like getting mail, and when casually mentioning how many children we have or whether we have something better to do.

    There’s more to be sussed out, like when we use “I’ve got” vs. “I’ve gotten.” (Since both forms are pretty clearly grammatical in U.S. English, but seem to be used in different places.) To me, it seems like the latter is usually for repeated perfective actions, like “I’ve gotten the same spam email four times already this week!” – and also in many phrasal verbs containing “get,” like “get up” “get down” or “get laid” (I’d say “I haven’t gotten up this early in weeks” over “I haven’t got up this early in weeks,” although this may vary for other speakers). And what about “have got” vs. “have”? I said the former was casual, but is there a clearer or more nuanced distinction?

    Anyway, this is probably not that fun for other people, so I will stop.

    A Linguist


  3. An Inside Joke #

    My middle-school english teacher despised the word “got,” and didn’t permit it in any of our writing for the class – including creative writing and other informal writing exercises.

    I guess she drilled a dislike for the word “got” into me pretty well, because reading this discussion of proper uses of “got” just felt wrong all throughout. And avoiding the word “got” has become so natural to me over the past decade, it’s never occurred to me that other people might not have similar associations.

    Is this just me, or were other people on this board taught to avoid the word “got” at all costs?


    • MrB #

      Oddly I feel exactly the same about “gotten”. It just goes through me, like nails on a blackboard. I know its correct usage over there, I know even if its not its not the end of the world. I know all of those things. Sidewalk doesn’t bother me, ‘erbs is fine, aluminum is an accepted variant but “gotten” makes me want to kill.


      • RichardR OTI Staff #

        I was just about to say the same thing! “Gotten” kills me. It’s not even wrong, it’s just…gross.

        Garner’s Modern American Usage, incidentally, describes “have got” as “long criticized as unnecessary for ‘have.’ In fact, though, the phrasing with ‘got’ adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.”

        So who am I to argue?


        • An Inside Joke #

          Interesting. Oddly, as much as “got” sets my teeth on edge, I have no problem with “gotten.” Guess it’s all about context, huh?


      • CherylY1 #

        I’m with you, MrB and I’m an American. I hate the word “gotten” and I never use it – even though I know most of my friends are thinking I’ve “got” it wrong.


  4. Marc #

    In all honesty, I think most of this is a moot point.

    Language changes to suit the time within which it is spoken/written.

    The ‘correct’ usage of a word is based on the most common usage at a particular time. Words are shortened to make them more efficient and the meaning is maintained within the context that it is used.

    Words fall out of usage and new ones come along.

    ‘Correct usage’ is what you want it to be.



    • RichardR OTI Staff #

      It’s not really that simple, though.

      Obviously language changes over time, but that doesn’t mean that you can use words arbitrarily to mean whatever you want them to.

      Yuo porbalbly cna fgirue otu waht tihs si spupodes to sya but that doesn’t make it correct.

      Correct usage isn’t just about how common it is, it’s about how much content the word or phrase contains and how much work the listener has to put it to figure out what the speaker is trying to say. So it isn’t only utility but efficiency.

      David Foster Wallace has an excellent essay that made me realize why I was such a usage snob – the version from Harper’s is here:


  5. nicholas #

    people start out sentences with all that shit because it’s an attempt to get the other person’s attention focused in on what you’re saying, automatically presuming / noticing that they are not really keyed into the conversation yet. it seems like a primer in that case to be using “i just wanted to let you know” “etc” ..


  6. Larry Borshard #

    I LOVE this discussion! Thank you all! Can’t believe I haven’t seen this sooner over the last ten years, although at my stAge, maybe I did and just forgot? For whatever reason, I wish language rules were definitive and constant. But as several point out here, rules vary by several factors, and change is inevitable, especially when influenced by popular (mis)use. Or, dare I say, am I just… over-thinking it?! Thanks again!


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