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I have looked through several questions and answers on EL&U, and often there is an indication that American English prefers "have" while British English prefers "have got". In addition, there are several references to "have got" being more informal than "have" (e.g.: When to use "have" and "have got", “Do you have” vs “Have you got”). But where is it considered more informal? In American English alone or both American and British English?

This point may seem obvious to those who made the above mentioned references, but the fact is that even the most fluent users of English in my country will say without a doubt that 'have got' is the preferred usage in the UK and, therefore, it must also be more formal. Why? Because in an academic environment, the more informal structures are generally frowned upon, outside some specific spoken exercises. And if the teachers insist on using "have got", it follows it isn't informal.

So, is the teaching of (British) English in our schools transmitting the wrong idea?

EDIT: I'm adding some information in answer to the comments.

I'm mainly concerned with the idea of possession:

I have got a cat vs. I have a cat and She has got a dog vs. She has a dog

As mentioned in the comments, every (Portuguese) student will be told that "have" and "have got", when it comes to the idea of possession, are absolute synonyms, the only two differences being:

    1. "have got" is preferred by British English, "have" is preferred by American English
    1. the negative and interrogative structures differ

I have never heard of any distinction in formality. In fact, I was rather surprised when I went through the EL&U archives and read about it.

So, would "I have got a cat" be as formal/informal as "I have a cat"?

And how do British and American English look at its formality/informality? Is it the same?

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@PeterShor 1. The question appears to be about have v. have got - not got v. gotten. 2. gotten is certainly not common in the UK and would, I think, instantly be viewed as an Americanism. –  TrevorD Jul 29 '13 at 12:14
I'm not convinced that Italian learners consider BrEng" I have got..." to be more formal than "I have..." That it is not my experience, but it is true they get confused about when to use one or the other. Although their meanings (with exceptions) are identical. The question form: "Have you got....?" vs. "Do you have...?" leave them often asking "Why?" and Is one better, or more correct? –  Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '13 at 12:15
I have always emphasized to private students that both forms are interchangeable and commonly used in the UK. Whereas the "Do you have....?" and the negative form, "I don't have..." is perhaps more commonly used in the US. I have steered away from "gotten have" because that form is never found in tests or written exams. This construction, I reserve for some students at Intermediate level. –  Mari-Lou A Jul 29 '13 at 12:16
@Mari-Lou A and TrevorD: I didn't post examples of negative and interrogative structures because the positive is enough, I believe, for my question. How it's rewritten in the negative/interrogative is irrelevant in making it more or less informal... isn't it? –  Sara Costa Jul 29 '13 at 13:17
@TrevorD: I redid the Ngram to compare "Do you have" and "Have you got". The results show that "Do you have" is replacing "Have you got" in both the U.K. and the U.S., but the U.S. is definitely farther along in the process. –  Peter Shor Jul 29 '13 at 15:02

10 Answers 10

up vote 3 down vote accepted

On usage, the Cambridge Grammar of English (p883) states:

The present tense form of have with got used for possession is more than twice as frequent in spoken BrE as in AmE:

  • I've got one sister and one brother. (BrE)

  • I have a cousin who never married. (AmE)

On formality, Swan in Practical English Usage (p230) states:

Got forms are especially common in an informal style. ... In very informal American speech, people may drop 've before got. I('ve) got a problem.

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I'm sorry to insist but when Swan states "Got forms are especially common in an informal style", is he referring to British or American Speech? Should I infer that, since he later talks about "very informal American speech", he was first also referring to American speech? –  Sara Costa Jul 29 '13 at 17:20
I presume both, from my own experience. –  Nicholas Jul 29 '13 at 17:49
@Sara. In summary of the two sources I quoted: have got is more common in British English than American English. In both Englishes have got is more informal than have. As an aside, since have got is informal, it will almost always be contracted. So I've got two dogs is much more likely than I have got two dogs. –  Shoe Jul 29 '13 at 18:08
Would you mind updating your answer by adding your last comment? I think it was your succinct answer to Sara Costa's follow-up question which swayed her. Furthermore, I believe it answers @SaraCosta's question more completely. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 6 '13 at 3:46
This is the first time I have read 'Practical English Usage' quoted. I think it's about time it was! To me, it's one of the most precious tools of the learner of English! –  user58319 Jan 15 '14 at 17:49

This not a matter of what's more formal or more proper or more anything. This is a very complex subject, with a number of constructions, and rules, and idioms, and complications involved. The presenting question covers one small tip of the iceberg; this answer covers the iceberg.
Oh, and this discussion is about American English; I take no responsibility for UK usages.

First, the verb get has two basic meanings, both grammatical rather than lexical
(in the following, "causative/inchoative" means 'come to be/become/cause to become'):

  • get can be the causative/inchoative of the auxiliary verb have, in all its uses
    She has/She got leprosy. She has/She got a car. I had it done/I got it done.
    = She came to have leprosy. She came to have a new car. I came to have it done.

  • get can also be the causative/inchoative of the auxiliary verb be, in all its uses
    She was/got married by a priest. He was/got going fast on the hill. They were/got tired.
    = She came to be/became married. He came to be going fast. They came to be tired.

Second, the present perfect construction uses the auxiliary have, and occurs in its Stative/Resultative Perfect sense with 'come to have' get ; in two variants: have got and have gotten. We only deal with American usage of have got here.

Third, since get means come to have, and since this is Stative/Resultative perfect, has got means 'has come to have'. OK, except that if one has come to have something in this sense of the Perfect, it must be true in the present that one still has it. So

  • I've got a car = I have come to have a car = I have acquired a car = I have a car.

which immediately confuses the have of the perfect with the have of possession.

Fourth, auxiliary verbs like be and have are almost always contracted (they're auxiliaries and have no meaning; they're particles, intended to direct your attention, not to hold it). This means they're reduced to final consonants cliticized to subject NPs, mostly pronouns.

  • I've, I'm, I'd, You've, You're, You'd, It's, It'd, We're, We've, We'd, They've, They're, They'd

Fifth, these clitics in turn get deleted whenever possible. After all, we already can't tell the difference between the contraction she is and she has, or between we would and we had, and that doesn't bother us. Plus, English does not like initial clusters /zg vg dg/, so /z v d/ are lost most of the time before got.

  • You've got the answer -> You got the answer.
  • I've got the answer -> I got the answer.
  • He's got the answer -> He got the answer. (often reified to He gots the answer)

Finally, since have is more often used as an auxiliary than to mean possession, and since the have got construction means the possession sense of have, it has come to take over the possession sense of have.

This is syntax in action, still changing, different now from the way it was 50 years ago, and coming to have new senses and new uses and new distinctions every day. It's alive, after all.

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In the end, after re-reading this answer more carefully, this is the answer which explains why "have got" is considered informal. As long as my private students (Italian) remember to write the full form without any contractions; i.e. I have a sister vs I have got a sister, I have always insisted that there is no difference in meaning and both forms are acceptable in formal writing. Your phrase: "(they're auxiliaries and have no meaning; they're particles, intended to direct your attention, not to hold it)" clinched it for me. –  Mari-Lou A Aug 12 '13 at 4:02

Just to make sure I have the question right - it is:

When is it appropriate to use "have a.." or "have got a..." for possession in British and American English?


Maybe if we start with something we can all agree on: it's generally not appropriate to use "have got", let alone abbreviated forms, in formal written English, whether in Britain or America. "I have got a degree in Maths from the University of Bath" doesn't sound right for a written job application; "I have a degree..." sounds better.

So the difficult question is especially about spoken English in different contexts and then summarising this in a way that beginner to intermediate level EFL students can actually understand.

Speaking in Britain

The fact that "have got" and abbreviated forms are not common in written English is a clue about formality: "I have an idea" is slightly more formal then "I've got an idea".

But this doesn't change the fact that it is appropriate, in most circumstances, to use either "have" or "have got" (abbreviated: people say "I've got" not "I have got" unless they're empahacising something they have compared to something they don't) but in most contexts "have got" is more common. In summary, for most students in doesn't matter which form they use for spoken British English. See these corpus results for have+idea vs. 've got+idea, which display similar numbers of results and little difference in context.

I'd also argue that in spoken English pronunciation of either form is more important than the choice of form per se.

Speaking in America

I'm British so not best placed to comment here. It seems the consensus on ESE and from what I see online is that American English prefers "have" to "have got". My opinion again is that it doesn't matter a lot for most EFL students which form they use since both exist in most spoken contexts but since "have" is more common it is more appropriate.

I also had a go at an ngram but it didn't really help much :-)

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To my BrE ears, ‘I have got a cat’ sounds like a full sentence, whereas ‘I have a cat’ sounds like a lead-in to a fact about that cat, such as if it were followed with, ‘who chases her own tail!’ It also sounds like the person has several cats, but is only talking about one of them.

Do bear in mind most people will use the contraction I've got in speech, and it does sound more informal than I have.

You are correct about the negative and interrogative too:

  • I have not got a cat, vs.
  • I do not have a cat


  • Have you got a cat? vs.
  • Do you have a cat?
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Besides its "primary" verbal meaning (possession), "have" is used as a verb of necessity, as a near-synonym of "must".

  • I must go.

  • I have to go.

  • I have got to go.

This last form - "have got to" - is very often shortened to "gotta", and I suspect that this may be a large part of the reason why Americans regard the "have got" construction as less formal.

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There used to be a distinction. "Do you have a car?" meant "Do you possess a car", whether the car is here now or at a garage or parked in your driveway at home. "Have you got a car?" had a more immediate meaning of "Have you got it with you now?"

However, I think that distinction disappeared a long time ago.

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I currently make no distinction. Have you got it with you, etc. –  David M Mar 28 '14 at 13:51

I agree that in the US 'have got' would be more informal than 'have' in the sense of possession. Not by much, however. Not at all, in the sense of obligation.

But what has me tearing out what's left of my hair is the repeated suggestion that Americans avoid 'have got.' I've lived my whole life in the Southern US and I use it all the time, as does (I think) everyone else. For example, the usual colloquial way of asking to borrow someone's cigarette lighter is "Got a light?" not "Do you have a light?" Of course, 'have' is also used very often.

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That's got, not have got. It's also a set phrase, does it really generalize? –  Barmar Dec 31 '14 at 18:39

It seems that "have" and "got" have the same meaning in this context, making the "got" in "have got" redundant and unnecessary. It doesn't seem to add any significant emphasis or meaning. It is probably used as a matter of habit or perhaps as a better sounding phrase to a certain cultural ear. I picked up the phrase "got to get going" by way of my mother who was from the Texas panhandle. This always sounded right and a bit melodic to my ear just from hearing it so often. When I traveled to other parts of the states or out of country, the phase was always found to be funny and excessive. Sometimes it is just local custom that dictates such things.

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The "got" in have got emphasizes the idea of possession. A British speaker might ask and reply: Have you got a pet? and Yes, I've got a cat. A British speaker would not use the same construction when "have" is the main verb, e.g. Are you having a shower? NOT "Having you got a shower?" –  Mari-Lou A Feb 5 at 7:52
@Mari-LouA “Having a shower” would only work for one of those bridal-shower things, not for taking a shower. –  tchrist Feb 6 at 0:11
@tchrist then it is yet another difference between BrEng and AmEng. In the UK both verbs are used for having or taking a shower. Whereas bridal and baby showers are much rarer in the UK. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 6 at 2:42

'Have you got time?' is informal in USA. 'Do you have time?' Is formal in the USA. USA uses 'got' in this way: as an emphases or as a repetition.

E.g.: "I have got to get a cat.' 'Got' is a repetition of get, thus creating an emphatic statement. Otherwise, got is not much used in the USA.

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You have got to be kidding. –  MετάEd Aug 10 '13 at 14:01
In USA that would be said: You have to be kidding. This proves my point further. –  Julie Aug 11 '13 at 10:44
In USA that would be said: You have to be kidding! This proves my point further. USA does not use 'got' and sees it as redundant. I believe the question was: Does USA use 'got' as much as Britain, and is it used formally or informally. My answer is no, and if it is used, it is very, very formal sounding. To further expand upon this, I have added that 'got' is used in the USA to emphasize possession, as in "I have got to get this work done now." 'Got' is not necessary at all, but it is used to create an emphasis, or a repetition of, the words 'have to'. Spoken by a true USA citizen. –  Julie Aug 11 '13 at 10:51
Don't generalize from your personal speech habits, or from your region or subculture, to the entire US. I am a US speaker, born and lived here all my life, and find "you have got to be kidding" idiomatic and "you have to be kidding" awkward. –  MετάEd Aug 11 '13 at 15:11
I'll echo @MετάEd: you've got to be kidding. People in the U.S. use "have got" all the time. If we didn't, American grade school teachers wouldn't be complaining about this usage. Do we use it in formal situations? Not usually, because people who listened to their grade school teachers complain about it if we do. –  Peter Shor Mar 28 '14 at 16:33

'I have got a car', this means you have it in your possession currently, or have it somewhere else. It means you have it.

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This answer does not fully explain the difference between the phrases the asker mentions. –  Patrick M Mar 28 '14 at 15:01

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