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In spoken English (at least in America), passives are often formed with "to get" rather than "to be;" I would wager the majority of the time:

  • he got hit by a car
  • I get driven to work
  • I've gotten called for jury duty eight times

Are there specific verbs that prefer "be" to "get," or vice-versa, or semantic differences between these forms? I cannot think of any.

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“He got killed by a shot to the back of the head” doesn't work for me—has to be “he was killed” there. I cannot think of a systematic reason for this, though. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 27 '13 at 14:24
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"That's How You Got Killed Before" by Elvis Costello metrolyrics.com/… Sometimes it is used with a reflexive pronoun with the implied meaning not purely passive. "He got himself killed, standin' there in the line-of-fire." In my experience, 'to get' is often used in a casual register to form passive constructions. It would sound "wrong" in formal register. –  Michael Owen Sartin Dec 27 '13 at 14:37
    
And even in a 'casual register', I (personally) would not say 'got called', but 'I've been called ...'. –  jon Dec 27 '13 at 16:11

2 Answers 2

There is a long discussion in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (p1441-1443) of the typical contexts in which the get-passive is more likely than the be-passive. The CGEL notes that:

i Get-passives tend to be avoided in formal style,

ii Get-passives are found only with dynamic verbs,

iii Get-passives are more conducive to an agentive interpretation of the subject,

iv Get-passives are characteristically used in clauses involving adversity or benefit.

Following are various extracts from CGEL's discussion of points ii-iv. (The authors do not regard point i as in need of further comment.)

The restriction to dynamic verbs: be is not replaceable by get in examples such as: It got believed that the letter was a forgery. Obviously, the manager gets feared by most of the staff.

Agentivity: Take for example the pair Jill was/got arrested. Either could be used used to report an event where Jill simply had a patient role, but if I believe she set out to provoke the police into arresting her or was careless in letting it happen I will be more likely to use the get version.

Adversity and benefit: Get occurs predominantly in passives representing situations that have an adverse or a beneficial effect on the subject referent, or on someone associated with it, rather than in passives representing purely neutral situations. Typical examples: Kim got sacked. My watch got stolen.

Such examples are much more natural than, say, The milk got bought at the store down the road or The door got opened by a shabbily dressed old man.


Swan, in his pedagogic grammar, Practical English Usage (p223) notes a further difference:

The get-passive is not often used to talk about longer, more deliberate planned actions:

?Our house got built in 1827.

?Parliament got opened on Thursday.

Finally, the Cambridge Grammar of English (a different text to the CGEL) observes (p539):

Prepositional phrases expressing an agent, although they do occur with get-passives, are far rarer than with be-passives.

In other words, She got arrested by the Austrian police is less likely than She was arrested by the Austrian police.

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Unless I'm very much mistaken, those are all British-English guides. I think the "got" form is more widely used and accepted in American English than in British English. –  nxx Dec 27 '13 at 22:31
    
@Nxx. Well, two of the three co-authors of the CGEL chapter on the passive are American. Anyway, are AE speakers more likely than BE speakers to say, for example, This book got written in 1873 or The hotel will get opened in 2014? I'm interested in any references to support the claim that they would. –  Shoe Dec 28 '13 at 8:00

If he was hit by a car, that's the driver's fault; if he got hit by a car, that's his own fault. (By semantics, though this is mostly not intended in real use.)

If you happen to come in the way of a bad driver, you may be hit by his car.
If you don't give way, you may get hit by his car.

As already stated, most speakers may not maintain this distinction.

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I think you are reading too much into the use of the word "got" here. If someone breaks into my house and steals my stuff, I can say "I got robbed" without implying that it was my own fault. I don't think "got" implies blame. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 27 '13 at 15:29
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@Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 Reading less, not too much. It's only when one ignores the patent semantics that the difference blurs. Think of it. :) (meta: That comment may have unwittingly prompted others to down vote the answer.) –  Kris Dec 27 '13 at 15:33
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No, Kris's interpretation is correct much of the time. There's an invited inference in the get-passive that the patient subject is not totally devoid of responsibility. Compare John was arrested last night and John got arrested last night. It's not obligatory, and it depends on circumstances (like all pragmatics), but it's quite common. –  John Lawler Dec 27 '13 at 16:30
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And there's certainly this inference in John and Julie got married. There's often at least a punctive vs stative aspect difference (contrast John and Julie were married by that time). And see Barrie's answer here for previous discussion of the get-passive. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 27 '13 at 17:26
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I admit that sometimes "got" implies who caused the action. However I think as it stands Kris's answer is incomplete. There are too many cases where "got" does not imply agency or blame. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 27 '13 at 20:11

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