Having the following sentences:

I did not get it to work.
I did not get it working.

Is there a difference in the meaning? What usage of "GET" is this (I would be happy for dictionary entry reference). IMHO the first one is "cause" (like I got him to do that). But I cannot find a reference to "get sth + ing".

  • The first sentence is not grammatical in English. It should be “I did not get it to work”. I would say that ‘cause’ is the meaning in the second as well: both are a type of factitive or causative phrasing. More specifically than that, though, I do not have any established name or analysis for it readily available. I suspect @JohnLawler will, though, if he sees this. Aug 26, 2013 at 7:18
  • You are right, I accidentally omitted "to".
    – John V
    Aug 26, 2013 at 7:34
  • I must wonder aloud if user970696 is aware of the sister site for English Language Learners, and if the question might have been a better fit for that site instead.
    – J.R.
    Aug 26, 2013 at 10:25
  • @J.R. well but this is related just to the "get + to/ing". I do understand the usage of infinitives in general.
    – John V
    Aug 26, 2013 at 11:01
  • Just to be clear, I have no problem with this question, but there are still many folks unaware of the ELL site.
    – J.R.
    Aug 26, 2013 at 12:44

3 Answers 3


There can be a subtle difference.

If I were creating something, e.g. writing some new programming code; putting some electrical or mechanical components together to achieve a particular objective; installing and setting up a new TV set for the first time [1]; then, if unsuccessful, I might say "I didn't get it to work" or "I can't/couldn't get it to work" [1]. (It had never worked, because it was new.)

If I were repairing something that had previously worked (e.g. repairing a previously working TV set [1]) and the repair was unsuccessful, then I would probably say "I didn't/can't/couldn't get it working". (It had previously worked.)

Note that these are subtle differences, and I do not mean to imply that the expressions and scenarios are necessarily always used that way around, not that it would be wrong to use them the other way around.

[1] Thanks to Janus Bahs Jacquet, whose comments contributed some examples and other input to my revised answer.

  • 1
    I think I can see the difference you are mentioning here, but I have to admit that I could also easily imagine “I didn’t get it to work” being used in the second of your scenarios. If the auxiliary is switched from ‘did’ to ‘could’, the difference becomes slightly sharper to my ears: “I can’t/couldn’t get it to work” sounds more like someone trying to set up a new TV set for the first time, for example, than like someone repairing a previously working one—it would be more awkward for the latter case than “I didn’t get it to work” would be, at least. Aug 26, 2013 at 14:10
  • I agree (and meant to say) that the first expression could be used in the second scenario. I also agree that setting up a TV set is a good example for the first scenario - where you had not previously had it working (either at all or in that scenario). That is sort of the thing I had in mind when talking of "putting some electrical [or electronic] ... components together to achieve a particular objective"; i.e. you're putting something together for the first time rather than fixing something that stopped working. I just couldn't think of a good example previously. cont'd ...
    – TrevorD
    Aug 26, 2013 at 14:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Cont'd ... As regards "can't/couldn't" v. "didn't" I also agree: I was just concentrating on the to work/working bit rather than the verb! If you've no objections, I'll amend my answer to incorporate your ideas, when I have a little more time.
    – TrevorD
    Aug 26, 2013 at 14:32

"I got it to work." - It is now capable of being utilized. It worked at least momentarily, either long enough to complete a task or just to prove functionality.

"I got it working." - Some amount of continuousness is implied. This is the same as "got it to work", but with additional information. You not only got the fridge to begin operating but it was left to run for some duration and probably continues to run now.

"I could not get it to work" - It did not function after your efforts, not even momentarily. This was possibly intended to be a momentary single-use instance, but there is no information in the sentence about possible continuousness.

"I could not get it working". - The same as above but you probably intended to leave it in a state of continuous operation, as you would a fridge. At the least, you envisioned it needing to be in a state of functionality​ for some duration so people could continuously tap into its utility.


There's a difference between the two. The first uses the infinitive while the second uses the gerund form of the verb. Now this might not be a good example to illustrate the difference between the two, but here's another example that clearly illustrates the difference:

I stopped smoking. Here you stopped the action of smoking. You no longer smoke.

I stopped to smoke. Here you stopped first wanted to smoke. The smoking hadn't happened yet.

In your examples there's not much of a difference in meaning between the two. The second seems to be more common than the first, at least in AmE. For example, if you had a printer that didn't work, the first would refer to the process of getting it working, while the second would refer to its action, which is functioning. But that's really splitting hairs.

  • Thanks but I asked particularly about GET to do/doing as the dictionaries usually mention "to cause something, as in "to get the fire to burn". I do not exactly understand the usage of "GET" in these sentences.
    – John V
    Aug 26, 2013 at 11:03

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