I was amused by the line “I got to thinking about something” in the following answer to the question, “You don't want to answer this word-placement question, now do you?” which I saw this morning in my inbox from Stack Exchange:

“Prompted by this question I got to thinking about the placement of the word now. If it's placed before the comma, it refers to an immediate condition: You don't want to answer this word-placement...

Does “get to doing [something]” mean “come to doing [something]” or “begin to do [something]”?

Though I think it’s a too naive question for native English speakers, how different is “I got to thinking about something” from “I got to think about something”? Does it become totally different with and without the ‘ing’?


There are two different senses here. The more common sense (and form) is...

Once everyone had left, I got to thinking about what had happened.

...where “I got to thinking” could be replaced by “[It came about that] I started thinking”. There's no particular implication that the presence of others somehow prevented me from thinking.

But to my mind, in the less common form...

Once everyone had left, I got to think about what had happened.

... “I got to think” could reasonably be replaced by “I [finally] got [the chance to] think...”.

The first form usually means “I fell to/started thinking”, the second “I was able to think”.

Note that my examples are in the past. In the present, there's a third possible meaning...

Once everyone has left, I [have] got to think about what has happened.

In this context, “[have] got to” can be replaced by “must” (expressing present/future obligation). As Peter Shor notes below, “have” is often omitted in casual speech (in present tense; the past tense form would normally omit “got” and keep “had”).

  • FumbleFingers. I have a memory that I learned that “get / have to” means “must” at middle school 67 -8 years ago. Doesn’t the second also mean “I had to think (about) / I was obliged to think (about)”?
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Jan 8 '13 at 23:03
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    @Yoichi: to make it mean "must", you need to use have got, and this construction only exists in present tense. So it needs to be: Once everyone has left, I have got to think about what happened. This have is commonly left out by Americans, but doing so is considered poor grammar. Jan 9 '13 at 0:58
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    I think I'd say that there were two different constructions here. One is get to V+inf, and the other is get to V+ing. The inf construction is a deontic modal meaning 'be allowed to V'; the gerund construction is a motion metaphor meaning 'reach a certain point in a process'. Test: you can generally substitute get around for simple get in the gerund construction. Jan 9 '13 at 1:56
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    @John: Yes - forgetting for now about the third obligation sense - that's what I meant to say. Correspondingly, I imagine you could normally substitute be able to (in whichever of its bewildering array of forms might happen to suit any particular context) in the infinitive construction. Jan 9 '13 at 2:13
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    It means it's not up to his free choice and abilities, but to some outside agency, either official or neuromuscular. That's the deontic sense. Epistemic senses are strictly internal/mental/logical. Jan 9 '13 at 22:46

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