Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

A Real Go-Getter

Posted by Neal on August 23, 2004

As Adam headed toward the stairs yesterday morning, he told me:

I’m go getting my stuffed animals.

Tonight, when it was time for his mom to come in for goodnight kisses, he said:

I’m go getting Mommy.

It looks like serial verb construction go+VERB has tripped Adam’s language-acquisition alarm, and is receiving some special attention these days. He’s heard us telling him “Go take a potty break,” or “You can go play now,” or “Want to go get some juice?” and is now integrating go+VERB into his grammar by using it in ways that he’s never heard us use it. The only way he’s ever heard adults in this house use the go+VERB construction is with go in its base form (e.g., as an imperative, after a modal, or in an infinitive, as in the examples above), followed by another verb in its base form. But Adam is finding situations where it would be quite useful to have a first-person singular (I), present progressive (am ___ing) version of the construction, and he is doing it by treating the go and the following verb (in this case, get) as an indivisible chunk, so that when the suffix –ing goes on, he ends up with go getting. Little does he know that he hasn’t ever heard us say something like this because it’s just not grammatical for us.

I was interested to see the decision Adam made in generating his present-progressive go construction, because it could conceivably have gone other ways. For example, he might have opted for I’m going getting my stuffed animals, inflecting both go and get. In fact, as I look at my notes (that I was actually able to find!) from a fall 1996 morphology class taught by Arnold Zwicky, I see that go and the following verb matching in morphological features is actually the operative rule in some speakers’ grammars. For them, *She goes get is bad, but She goes gets (or is going getting) is OK. Maybe Adam will grow up to be one of these speakers.

On the other hand, maybe Adam will experiment some more with go+VERB and decide that go getting just doesn’t work. If and when that happens, his grammar still might not match mine and his mom’s. For example, I can also use go as a simple present tense, as in We go get coffee every day, but I don’t think Adam’s heard examples like that from us as much. So maybe he’ll unconsciously make a distinction between tenseless go (in the imperatives, modals, and infinitives) and tensed go, and decide that We go get is out. In fact, according to my notes from Zwicky’s class, this rule is the one operating in some other speakers’ grammars. There are even speakers for whom go+VERB is never grammatical, though I doubt Adam will join them, as he’s so accustomed to hearing it in his daily life.

3 Responses to “A Real Go-Getter”

  1. Anonymous said

    I’m not a linguistic expert… but it sounds to me as if he’s perceiving “go get” as a single word (let’s call it “goget”). Does that simple hypothesis explain what he’s doing?

    You (heard by him): “Goget your coat, we’re leaving.” Him: “I’m gogetting my coat.”

  2. Neal said

    Precisely. That’s what I meant when I talked about “go get” as an indivisible chunk, but you’re right: “single word” would have been clearer.

  3. Anonymous said

    Wow, I didn’t know that even linguist parents sat back and totally accepted the language their kids generated without imposing any precriptivism. Don’t you hunger to fix it?

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