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Concourse 2


make it so
Make it so

Analyses of causatives in English are often confined to the causative verbs have and get as in, e.g.,

  1. I'm having the car serviced
  2. I'll get the car serviced

There is, in fact quite a lot more to it than that, as we shall see.

cause and effect

Cause and effect

English has a number of ways to express the fact that the subject of a verb causes 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 street
  3. Her antagonism irritated him
  4. The sun warmed the air
  5. The police marched the suspect in and stood him against the wall for a photograph
  6. She's walking the dog

Notice that some of the causative verbs in these examples can be used both transitively (taking an object) and intransitively (with no object).  We can have The box opened (3), The air warmed (6), the suspect marched in and stood against the wall (7), the dog is walking (8).
In other cases, we can't do this and have to use an alternative verb to rephrase the idea intransitively: the street got wider (4), he became irritated (5).

other languages

English and other languages

Other languages handle transitivity like this in very different ways.
In some, verbs may take what is called the ergative case when used intransitively and the noun (and adjective and article, often) will be marked to show it so those languages can produce he irritated (to mean became irritated), the dog walked (to mean was walked), the door opened and so on.
In other languages, such as Malay, a verb can be the same in both transitive and intransitive uses but will take a suffix or other change to show whether it is being used transitively or intransitively.
English does neither of these things but shows transitivity by word order, structure or rephrasing with a different verb.  For example, I washed the car vs. the car was washed, someone broke the window vs. the window got broken, his hand rose vs. he raised his hand etc.  Occasionally, English can make a kind of ergative with something like the glass broke, the picture discoloured or the door opened.
English can, like many languages, also make a transitive verb intransitive by using a reflexive as in, e.g., the problem solved itself, the house shook itself to pieces, the car drives itself etc.  Lots of languages do that much more extensively than English.

So what?

This all matters because the idea of transitivity is fundamental to understanding the verb structures of any language.  Without knowing about it, it is hardly possible to use verbs accurately at all.  Speakers of many languages which can use the same word in both transitive and intransitive ways will, therefore, make errors such as:

  1. *he angered (for became angry)
  2. *he fell the glass (for dropped the glass)
  3. *the bad weather died the flowers
  4. *he rose his hand
  5. *I reminded (to mean I remembered)
  6. *I interested (to mean I became interested)
  7. *we'll meet us

Summary: causative verbs vs. causative structures

There is, therefore, an important distinction between

the causative verbs
such as the ones in the examples above, which express the fact that the subject has caused a change in the object and
the causative structure
such as I had the car washed, they made him tell the truth, they had their house broken into and so on, which express the fact that the subject caused another to do something or something was done to the subject which was unwelcome or unfortunate.


Causative verbs

I made him explain it to me  

There are three causative verbs in particular with which learners have a certain amount of trouble.  Here are examples of them:

  1. I had him explain it to me
  2. I made him explain it to me
  3. I let him explain it to me

Why should learners have trouble with these?  Click here when you have an answer.


The causative structures

Now that we know about causative verbs, we can look at causative structures.

Here are six examples:

  1. I'm having the house painted
  2. I'm getting the car serviced by the people who sold it to me
  3. I'm having the people who sold me the car service it
  4. I'm getting John to paint the house
  5. He got his wallet stolen by someone on the train
  6. She got her hand caught in the lift doors

What do you notice about meaning?
What do you notice about form?
Click here when you have some notes.

The causative is not simple.  Here's a summary:
causative summary


Tense forms and modals with causative structures

Simple tenses are common with the structures.  For example:

  1. I have my car serviced regularly
  2. I got the house painted
  3. I am getting the work done next week
  4. I will have to have it fixed
  5. He's going to have it done
  6. He will be having the kitchen installed all next week

Note that because have is not used statively in the causative, that the progressive form is common.

Causative structures combine very naturally with various aspects and modals to create complex tense forms.  For example

  1. I'm sorry I'm late.  I have been having my eyes tested (present perfect progressive causative)
  2. He must have been having his roof repaired (perfect progressive modal form causative)
  3. He had been having his old shoes repaired for years before he bought a new pair (past perfect progressive causative)
  4. He will have been having his house painted again before the year's out, I expect (future perfect progressive causative)


Teaching causatives



There are five related difficulties for learners in this area:

  1. The forms, especially in terms of word order, are complex and difficult to remember.
  2. We saw above that other languages handle transitivity and causative verbs very differently from English so there are many possibilities for confusion.  This leads to errors such as *I cut my hair at the salon or *I stolen my car.
  3. There are complex issues with meaning: arrangement, misfortune and fraud.  Learners may misinterpret what they hear or produce unintended meanings.
  4. There are complexities of form with ordering of two objects and the use of the to-infinitive.  This leads to errors such *I am getting him painted my house, *She is having him to do it etc.
  5. Because of 1, 2, 3 and 4, learners often avoid the structures and rely on unnatural circumlocutions such as My car was repaired (when I had the car repaired is intended) or The hairdresser cut my hair.


Drill until the forms are produced adequately.  Simply drilling of the form isn't enough.  You need to explain where the weak forms are and how the stress patterns work across the sentence or clause.
Beware the complex tense forms until the simple forms and the word ordering have been mastered.  Forms such as
    He had been having his old shoes repaired for years before he bought a new pair
are not at all easy to unpack.
Use sentence re-ordering exercises.
Try Dictogloss techniques to get the learners to reconstruct the forms.
(There are some other ideas for drilling and dictation in the teacher development guide to techniques.)
Transitivity issues
Make sure you have some idea of how your students' languages handle the concept.  Ask them if you aren't sure because a little comparative language work often pays dividends.
Concept checking has to be done continually when teaching the area.  Students' understanding of who is doing what to whom with what has to be made overt.
In a sentence such as
    Mary is having the garage fix her moped
questions such as
    What is being fixed?
    Who owns the moped?
    Is Mary fixing it?
    Who is fixing the moped?
    What has Mary arranged?

etc. are vital for understanding and checking understanding.
And you need to check with individuals rather than be satisfied with the strongest calling out.
Keep to one verb at a time initially because the shades of meaning between have and get are very difficult to grasp.
Start with have for arrangements only.  Insert get later with the same meaning (and make it clear that it is stylistically less formal, usually) and only later introduce the idea of misfortune.
Much later, if at all, introduce the idea of fraud.
Two objects and the use of the to-infinitive
Don't introduce a second object until the form and meaning of causative structures with a single object has been mastered.
Focus on one verb at a time (usually have) because the use of the bare infinitive works fine with make and let, too, the verbs are probably familiar and the concepts are allied.
Introduce the get + to-infinitive in combination with ask to, arrange to, want to etc. because the forms are familiar and parallel.  It's a short structural and conceptual jump from I want him to go and I got him to go.
Set up a clear context in which the forms are required, not optional.
Example 1
Having a street plan and the names of shops and services on it can be used to exemplify and practice.  Get the learners to follow you around town on the map while you relate the events.  E.g.
    First I'm having my hair done
(students number the hairdresser's as '1')
    then I'm getting my clothes cleaned
    then I'm having my shoes repaired
    then I'll try to get my laptop sorted out
When they have followed you around by the prompts, they can follow each other using similar prompts.
(This idea is from Obee, B (1999) The Grammar Activity Book, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p101.)
Example 2
Choose a topic of someone temporarily disabled and focus on what that person currently must have done by someone else that they would normally do themselves:
wash the car
do the shopping
tie shoelaces
change a light bulb

A related guide is that to the passive in English which also considers other languages and how they deal with the ergative and so on.