logo  ELT Concourse for learners of English
Concourse 2

Causatives: making things happen

make it so
Make it so

There are two main ways to express the idea of getting someone else to do something in English:

  1. Causative verbs such as make, force, persuade, let etc.
  2. Causative structures such as:
        I had my house painted
        I got the car repaired

    etc.

This lesson will cover both of these and it is quite long so, if you get tired, bookmark the page and come back to it later.
Please note that sentences in red in this lesson are wrong!


cause and effect

Cause and effect

English has a number of ways to say that the subject of a verb makes a change to the object.  Here are some examples and they are all ways of saying something caused something to happen in English.

  1. The key opened the box
  2. They have widened the road
  3. Her complaint irritated him
  4. The sun warmed the air
  5. The wind blew the window shut

Some of these verbs can also be used without an object.

think Task 1: Which of the following sentences are right and which ones are wrong?
When you have an answer, click on this: eye
  1. The box opened
  2. The road widened
  3. He irritated
  4. The air warmed
  5. The window shut

oblige

Obliging and allowing

These verbs can be a little difficult because the grammar changes.

think Task 2: Look at these sentences.  What do you notice about the forms of the verbs?
When you have an answer, click on this: eye
  1. I forced him to tell me
  2. I let him explain it to me
  3. I asked him to come
  4. I had him explain it to me
  5. I obliged them to come
  6. I wanted him to hear
  7. I made him explain it to me
  8. I allowed him to speak
  9. I got her to tell me the truth
test Task 3: To see if you can remember this, do a short test.
Click here to start.  Press the  button to return to this page.

Five things to notice:
notice

  1. Only the verbs make, let and have are followed by the infinitive without to.
  2. Of these, let and make are informal but have is quite formal and we do not use it so often.
  3. All the other verbs are followed by the infinitive with to and none of them can be followed by the -ing form or the gerund so for example, it is wrong to have:
        I made him going
        I obliged him coming

    etc.
  4. All the verbs must have an object so, for example, it is wrong to say:
        I made go
        She persuaded come

    etc.
    So we need to put in the object and have:
        I made her go
        She persuaded Mary to come

    etc.
  5. Some of the verbs such as make, let, oblige, allow, force and have can only be used when one person is in authority over other people.
    Other verbs, such as persuade, want, encourage, convince etc. can be used when one person is not in authority.

structure

Causative structures: the form

There are two verbs that we usually use to make causative structures: have and get.
The grammar for both of them is the same and we make a causative structure like this:

Parts of the sentence: Subject Verb (have or get) Object Past participle by structure
Examples: My friend has had his car repaired  
I want to have my house painted blue by a professional
She got her dress made by Mary
The company had a new logo designed  
She often has her essays secretly written by a friend
John and his wife  must urgently get the money sent immediately  
She  will be getting her hair cut  

Some things to notice:
notice

  1. The subject is always a person or an institution (like a school, the company, the bookshop, the restaurant, the university, the government etc.) because only people make things happen like this.
  2. The verb can be a single word like have or get or it can be a verb phrase like want to have or must urgently get.
  3. The verbs have and get can be in any tense such as will be getting or can't have had etc.
  4. The object is not a person.  If we want to talk about a person as the object of the verb, we use the causative verbs (see above).
  5. The past participle part can also be a verb phrase like sent immediately or painted blue.
  6. The last part, the by-structure is optional.  Just as we make passive sentences with and without the structure, we can make causative sentences with and without it.
  7. If you want to make a question or a negative, you must use have as a main verb and make questions and negatives with the auxiliary verb do so:
        Did she have the car fixed?
    is correct but
        Had she the car fixed?
    is wrong and
        She didn't have the car fixed
    is correct but
        She hadn't the car fixed
    is wrong.
test Task 4: To see if you can remember the structures, do five little sentence-ordering tests.
Click here to start.  The last exercise has a link at the top to come back to this page.


meaning

Causative structures: the meaning

Causative structures can mean different things.  Like this:

1

I don't do it myself

This is the most common meaning.  Here are some examples:

  • I never work on my car and always get repairs done by a professional.
  • She went to the High Street to have her hair done before the wedding.
  • They want to have the work done by the builder before Thursday.
  • She asked at reception if she could have her room cleaned.
  • They often get their garden tidied up by the company down the road.
  • Did you have the rubbish taken away?
  • I don't want to have my meals brought to my room.
  • Didn't she have her house beautifully decorated?
2

Something unpleasant

This is a completely different meaning.  We use the form to express that something we don't want, did not arrange and don't like has happened or will happen.  Here are some examples:

  • They had their house broken into while they were on holiday.
  • She didn't want to have her hair ruined by an amateur hairdresser.
  • If you hold all that money in your hand like that, you'll have it stolen before long.
  • She complained at reception that she had had her room broken into.
  • They often get their mailbox targeted by spammers.
  • Did he have the car stolen?
  • I don't want to have my fingers trapped in that.
  • Didn't she have her house damaged in the earthquake?

Be careful!
care

When something unpleasant happens suddenly, we can only use the verb get.  So for example:
    She got her hand caught in the door
means that it was a sudden and unpleasant event and certainly not something she wanted or arranged, but
    She had her hand caught in the door
means that this unpleasant state went on for some time so we can say:
    She had her hand caught in the door for an hour
and
    She got her hand caught in the door suddenly
but not
    She got her hand caught in the door for an hour
or
    She hand her hand caught in the door suddenly


3

Something illegal

This is like the first meaning but the sense is that someone has done something illegal or immoral.  Again, the subject did not do it but the subject benefits from it illegally.  This is not very common so here are only a couple of examples:

  • They got their house broken into by a friend while they were on holiday so they could claim on their insurance.
  • He got the insurance money by having his shop burnt down.

Here is a summary of how the causative verbs and causative structures work in English.

summary

test Task 5: To see if you can remember all this, try a test.
Click here to start.