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make it so
Make it so

Analyses of causatives in English are often confined to the causative verb structures with 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

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
    The suspect marched in and stood against the wall
    The dog is walking
In other cases, we can't do this and have to use an alternative verb or rephrase the idea:
    The street got wider or The street was widened (4)
    He became irritated
or He was irritated by her antagonism (5).

other languages

English and other languages

Other languages handle transitivity in very different ways.

In some, verbs may take what is called the ergative case, in which the ostensible grammatical subject is semantically the object of the verb, when used intransitively and the verb and the noun (and adjective and article, often) will be marked to show the case so those languages can produce
    He irritated
(to mean became irritated)
    The dog walked
(to mean was walked)
    The door opened
and so on.  The last of these is an ergative clause in English but the language does not signal case on verbs so it is identical to an active sentence.  We have the same phenomenon operating with, e.g.:
    The water boiled
    The book sold well
    The potatoes overcooked
    The trousers suited her

which are superficially illogical because we do not normally allow inanimate subjects to do these things.

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 not vary the verb form 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
Occasionally, as we saw, English can make a kind of ergative with something like
    The glass broke
    The picture faded


English can, like many languages, also make a transitive verb intransitive by using a reflexive pronoun as a kind of dummy object as in, e.g.
    The problem solved itself
    The house shook itself to pieces
    The car drives itself
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 as in:
    They let her go home
    She made me do it again
    They forced her to resign

etc.  and
the causative structure
such as
    I had the car washed
    They had their house broken into
    She got her arm broken
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.

An alternative way to analyse the structures and verbs is to call the causative verbs active causatives and the causative structures passive causatives.  That way, a handy dichotomy can be set up like this:

Active causative Passive causative
He had me do it again He had it done again by me
I got John to paint the house I got the house painted by John

This makes some kind of sense but only works with those verbs which appear regularly in causative structures (have and get, see below).  This kind of neat distinction does not work with other causative verbs because there is no passive causative for, e.g.:
    She obliged me to do the work
because we can only make a simple passive as in:
    I was obliged to do the work (by her)
and we can't have a causative passive such as:
    *She obliged the work done by me

To complicate matters with this sort of analysis two of the most common causative verbs, let and have, present problems so, while
    They let me open the present
    She had me clean up my room
are fine, but
    *I was let open the present
    *I was had clean up my room
are not acceptable.
The verb let can be used in the passive when there is no following verb but an adverb or adverb phrase instead so we allow, e.g.:
    The dogs were let out
    He was let in
but not
    *The dogs were let to play
The verb make does allow a passive so we can have:
    She made me clean up my room
    I was made to clean up my room
with the added complication that the passive demands the to-infinitive and the active the bare infinitive.

For these reasons, this guide distinguishes between causative verbs, which may or may not be used actively or passively in the normal way, and causative structures which are considered a sub-set of the passive in English.


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:


Tense forms and modality 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

The progressive form of have is common in the causative structure but rarer elsewhere.

Causative structures combine very naturally with various aspects and modal auxiliary verbs 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 is a range of related difficulties for learners in this area:

  1. The forms, especially in terms of word order, are complex, unusual and difficult to remember.  We have both:
    1. SOV as in
          I had my house painted
    2. SVOIVOD as in
          I had Mary write my essay
  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
        *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.  The difference between, e.g.:
        She got someone to steal her car
    (i.e., fraudulently) and
        She got her car stolen by someone
    (i.e., probably just unfortunately)
    is subtle and non-intuitive.
  4. There are complexities of form with ordering of two objects and the use of the to-infinitive.  This leads to errors such as:
        *I am getting him painted my house
        *She is having him to do it
  5. The variations in strength in terms of the use of causative verbs (rather than causative structures) are quite subtle so the difference between, e.g.;
        She persuaded him to do the work
        She got him to do the work
    are not immediately obvious.
    The issue is one of hortation (suasion) and obligation (deontic modality).  See the guide to suasion linked at the end for more in this area.
  6. There may be confusion with perfect tense forms.  The distinction between, for example:
        I had my house painted
        I had painted my house
    or between:
        I will have the car repaired
        I will have repaired the car
    or between:
        I have my eyes tested
        I have tested my eyes
    relies solely on the ordering of the constituents of the clauses and learners may either produce or understand the perfect aspects where a simple aspect causative meaning is intended.
  7. 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)
        The hairdresser cut my hair


Start slowly.  Getting the constituents of a clause in the right place is not at all easy because the causative breaks the Subject–Verb–Object convention in English.
Making the constituents of the sentence plain by a table like this is helpful especially when introducing the form for the first time.
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  
When we have two objects, the situation is altered as we saw above but a table like this may help to make things clear:
Parts of the sentence: Subject Verb (have or get) Object 1 Infinitive Object 2
Examples with have: My friend has had the garage repair his car
I want to have him paint the house
The company had me design a new logo
Examples with get: John and his wife  must urgently get the bank to send the money
She will be getting the salon to cut her hair
She got Mary to make the cake

Some comparative work with perfect aspect tense forms is probably appropriate so learners are alerettd to the difference between
    I have my hair cut
    I have cut my hair

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 but not by getting learners to re-order all the individual words.  It is the constituents of the clause which they need to notice, not the individual words which make up phrases.
So do not set an exercise such as:
Put the words in the right order:
designed her Stella had she by McCartney dress has

but prefer the idea of getting the constituent phrases in the right order:
Put the parts in the right order:
designed her dress by Stella McCartney has had she

Try Dictogloss techniques to get the learners to reconstruct the forms.  A short text such as:
I went to town yesterday to have my eyes tested at the opticians and while I was there I got my shoes repaired and had the barman at the pub make me a wonderful cocktail.  I went shopping too but my back's painful so I had my shopping taken to the car by the boy in the supermarket.
is a suitable vehicle once the learners are familiar with the forms they are trying to get right.
(There are some other ideas for drilling and dictation in the teacher development guide to techniques.)
For pronunciation practice, simple 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.
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..
For 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.
(See the guide to other catenative (chain forming) verbs which follow this pattern linked in the list of related guides at the end.)
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, 1999:101.)
Example 2
Choose a topic of someone temporarily disabled by a broken arm, for example, and focus on what that person currently must have done by someone else that they would normally do for themselves:
    wash the car
    do the shopping
    tie shoelaces
    change a light bulb


Related guides
catenative verbs for the guide (mostly) to the use of the infinitive vs. the gerund
the passive for the guide to how and when the passive is used
suasion for a guide to the distinctions between hortation and obligation
a lesson this lesson is for reasonably advanced learners and focuses on causative verbs and structures

Obee, B, 1999, The Grammar Activity Book, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press