February 16, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips; get, got, gotten and numerals, numbers & heads-up or head’s up

Posted in get, got/gotten, heads-up/head's up, number/numeral, numbers and numerals at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Get, got, or gotten and numbers or numerals

A reader writes:

I’m wondering about the usage of “gotten” in scientific manuscripts.

A co-author suggests that I replace “18% had got the vaccine” with “18% had gotten the vaccine” as long as the journal is US-based. In “real” English, I believe I would be right to use “got” but should this change when targeting a US-based journal?

My first response is: “Hey babe, the English you get HERE  is as REAL as it gets.” But that’s way too glib.

First, let me start by saying that ‘got’ is more common in British English, and ‘gotten’ is more common in American English. Both words serve as the past tense of ‘get’ and have other uses as well.

So if your word choice is limited to ‘got’ or ‘gotten’ as in the example above, the correct choice, here, would be ‘gotten.’

18% had gotten the vaccine.

The bigger question, for me, is whether using the verb ‘to get’ is the best choice to begin with. There are couple schools of thought about this. Some believe that ‘get’ is too casual for formal writing and should not be used, and some believe that ‘get’ is just fine. I have to admit, I am of the first school; I would try to substitute more formal language:

18% received the vaccine, or 18% were vaccinated.

While most sources I consulted agreed with me about its use, a few (including Bryan Garner) disagreed. I definitely concede that it is grammatically correct to use ‘get,’ and it is standard English, but it just seems too informal and imprecise. I wrote about the use of ‘get’ back in 2008 and said basically the same thing (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/get/). There are better, stronger, and more formal words that can be used.

Forget about get.

But what’s really bugging me is this. I hope that the writer  was just sending me a fragment of and not the whole sentence because starting a sentence in a scientific manuscript with a numeral is completely wrong. The correct thing to do is to spell out the number and spell out percent rather than using the percent sign, or rewrite the sentence so the offending numeral does not initiate the sentence:

Eighteen percent were vaccinated. Of the sample, 18% were vaccinated.

Ah, much better.

Tip 2: Heads-up or head’s up

A reader writes:

A teacher asked me whether it’s ‘head’s up’ or ‘heads up’  I can’t decide. It seems to me it’s the latter if you’re talking to a group because ‘head is up’ doesn’t make sense if you are suggesting  that someone lift their head up. Unless it’s a kind of pseudo-military command – Head is up!

Anyway, I said I wasn’t sure, but I knew who to ask.

I appreciate the confidence. The expression is ‘heads-up’ without the apostrophe. A ‘heads-up’ is an alert or warning.

While the origin of the expression is a cause for dispute (what else is new?), I am reasonably sure that the term was originally a baseball expression. When a ball is hit foul and goes into the stands, the tradition is for people to yell “heads-up” to warn those in the stands that a ball is coming their way. Its use has spread to many sports and to the business world and has become part of our normal vocabulary (but I wouldn’t use it in formal writing).



  1. Matt Wingett said,

    Surely, there are two uses of “heads up”? One is used in the imperative to give someone a warning: “Heads up!”, like “Look out!”. This would surely get people’s attention if the ball were flying at them.

    Secondly, I would suggest that the noun has been backward-formed from the verbal phrase, where the hyphen is added: “a heads-up”.

    This is similar to the way the two words of the verbal phrase are concatenated in: “a lookout” to form a noun. “You look out and make sure no-one comes… You’re the look-out man, now, see? You’re The Lookout.”

    Phenomenologically speaking, does it not make more sense to conceive of the verb form first, and then the noun?

    Just a thought!

  2. Matt Wingett said,

    Also, regarding your 18%…

    When I am reading a report, I want numbers to stand out so that I can ingest them quickly.

    Though it may not be grammatically correct to use 18%, it’s a damn sight quicker than ploughing through more words to get to the hard data.

    I would ask about the context of the paper being written. What will it be used for? If it’s to get information across quickly, then I for one would prefer to see numbers written as numbers, not spelled out.

  3. Raymond Chang said,

    Speaking of “head”, when you play “flip a coin game”, why using plural “heads or tails”?

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