What a Hot Verb!

How would you explain the meaning of the verb to get to someone? Would you say it means to receive, or to be given something, and perhaps give an example like I got a lot of nice presents for my birthday? If so, well done, that’s a pretty solid combination of definitions and examples. But…

What about:

I’m getting better.

It gets cold in the winter.

You might get lucky.

I got quite drunk last night!

I hear they’re getting divorced.

I still haven’t got over the flu.

They don’t quite match the definition, do they? But that’s ok, because to get is what is commonly known as a hot verb, an empty verb, or a delexicalised verb. This is a verb which may have a general meaning, but is also used in many other contexts with a different meaning. Some other common examples are to come, do, give, have, make, and take. They can be a little confusing for learners. Make and do in particular cause a lot of headaches.

What interests me more about these verbs is what it reveals about what native speakers think about their own languages. Our instinct is often to think that every word has an exact meaning, as that feels quite logical. And it’s often true. But a language is more than simply a list of words with an accompanying meaning. If that were the case, all we’d need to learn a language would be a dictionary. And I’d be out of a job. You wouldn’t want that, would you? This instinct to think of a language as consisting of a series of words and matching meanings is quite hard for trainee teachers to overcome, especially if they have an instinct to help out their students and give them a quick, simple answer.

But usually, most teachers quickly learn that words and phrases often gain their meaning from their context: from the words or phrases they’re partnered with, or the grammatical structures they’re placed into. That’s not something most of us ever really think about in relation to our mother tongue. But when we do, we usually understand and accept this aspect of language. If someone says What about It’s getting cold!? we could probably answer that in that case getting means becoming.

Yet some people are a lot more rigid, and can’t fathom a word having different meanings, or a word having a counter-intuitive meaning. I’m tempted to say that such people have a prescriptive perspective, but prescriptive means they’re overly strict in adhering to rules, when in fact, they’re imagining rules. Plus, prescriptive perspective is very hard to say. I was thinking about this yesterday when a colleague informed me about what she was listening to on the radio. A guest had talked about having a lie-in this morning, when someone texted in to say that the phrase is actually a lie-on. The DJ thought this strange, but solicited opinions from listeners, and a shocking 80% of them agreed that the phrase is a lie-on. Shocking, because it’s simply wrong. Some people even suggested that the term is lay-on, which I won’t dignify by referencing any further.

But one person tried to justify her opinion by stating that you lie on a bed, so you have to say have a lie-on. Which has a vague sense of logic to it, but ignores the fact that that’s not how language works. No language is 100% logical like that. Did she not even think to google the term and discover in seconds that the almost universally accepted term is lie-in? No, she didn’t, because of course ego is a crucial factor in all this. People want to feel right, and be seen to be right, so rather than search for information, they’ll develop a system of logic to back up their idea. Truly, this is the post-truth age indeed. This is particularly egregious when someone is particularly rigid-minded, as they’ll be more likely to have their sense of logic already firmly in place, and much less likely to consider that they’re wrong.

Anyway, there is a logic to lie-in. When you sleep, you don’t really lie on your bed, but in it. Obviously that’s what we say, which is the most important factor, but there is a logic to it to. A bed consists not just of the frame, but of the bedsheets too. So when we go to sleep, we’re in the bed, being between two parts of it. And to lie on a bed has an already-understood meaning. When you’re on holiday and tired from walking around in the hot sun, you collapse and lie on the bed: on top of the bedsheets, and therefore on the whole of the bed. So you see, no matter how illogical some aspect of language might seem, there isusually a reason behind it. Which is why if someone insists on something related to language that you’re sure is wrong, but they insist is right according to their own system of logic, don’t trust them. The English language has got along just fine using varying strands of logic to evolve, without the input of pedants who insist that language must adhere to their idea of logic.

And enjoy your Sunday lie-in tomorrow.



17 thoughts on “What a Hot Verb!

  1. Enjoyed this piece, though I’ve never heard of a lie-in myself.
    Our tendency—inherited from the Dutch—of adding a preposition to a verb and thus making an idiomatic expression, is a royal pain to those learning English. One time I went over the verb “take” with a French girl. By the time she’d heard about take in, take up, take up with someone, take down, take someone down, take out, take it out on, take over, overtake, etc, etc., she was shaking her head.
    “Are all English verbs like this,” she moaned. “Is there a put up and put down, put in and put out.” I nodded. She sighed.


      • You and me both. Trouble is, people keep adding slang and an old-timer like myself soon gets behind when a well known verb suddenly takes on a mysterious meaning. When I was young you banged on the door or some other object, but I’ve seen where English novels are now giving this a whole new slant.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Women traditionally used to have a lying-in period after childbirth – an extended time of staying in bed to recover and to bond with their new baby – so I always assumed a lie-in (as in getting up late in the morning) came from the same source 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While I have to work and definitely won’t be having a lie-in, I certainly agree that’s it’s not lie-on. Where I’m from, we actually call it a sleep-in, though. It would be weird to call it a sleep-on!


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