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Concourse 2

Causative verbs and structures

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.

Here's the menu for this guide.  Use it if you are looking for something in particular or just work through the guide as it comes.

Cause and effect Transitivity Causative verbs vs. structures Causative verbs
Semantic issues with objects Synthetic verbs Summary of meaning Causative structures
Forms of causative structures Summary of form Tenses and modality Pronunciation
Teaching causatives Other languages Problems for learners Suggestions

Clicking on -top- at the end of each section will take you back to this menu.

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
  7. We liquefied the gas

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)
    The gas liquefied (9).
When they are intransitive, they cannot, by definition, be causative because causation directly implies an object.
In other cases, we can't do this and have to use an alternative verb or rephrase the idea:
    The street got wider
    The street was widened (4)
    He became irritated
    He was irritated by her antagonism (5).
When we use the passive (the second realisations), the sense of causation is maintained because causative verbs like these may be used in both active and passive voice clauses.


other languages

Transitivity: English and other languages

Other languages handle transitivity in very different ways.  This matters because, by their nature, causative verbs are transitive.

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 any nouns or 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 tore

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 appear intransitive by using a reflexive pronoun as a 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 and that includes the ability to signal causative events.  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

There is a good deal more below under the section on teaching this area which considers how a causative sense is realised in other languages but first, we need to see how it is done in English.



Causative verbs vs. causative structures

There is 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 had her repeat the presentation
    They forced her to resign

etc. and
the causative structures
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.

The distinction in terms of meaning is this:

the causative verbs
focus on who is affected by the actions of the subject of the verb.
This means a passive version of the clause is usually available so we can have, e.g.:
    She was made to re-do it
    The man was allowed out
    He was asked to repeat the question
    She was forced to resign
the causative structures
focus on what is affected by the verb in the participle form and they are, therefore already passive structures of a kind so no additional passive clause is usually available.

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


Three common causative verbs: let, make, have

Three of the most common causative verbs, let, have and make, present problems so, while
    They let me open the present
    She made me do the washing up
    She had me clean up my room
are fine,
    *I was let open the present
    *I was made do the washing up
    *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 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.
The verb have does not allow a passive-voice formulation at all so:
    *I was had clean up my room
is, as we saw above, not acceptable.

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.
There is, however, some crossover because both get and have are causative verbs in their own right as in, e.g.:
    I had him do it
    I got him to do it

which are parallel to:
    I made him do it
    I forced him to do it
but they also appear in causative structures and take on different characteristics in terms of how the elements are ordered in the clause and the verb forms which follow the verbs themselves.



Causative verbs

I made him explain it to me  

The three causative verbs in particular with which learners have a certain amount of trouble have been analysed above.  Here are some more examples of them in action:

  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.



Semantic issues

There are also issues to do with what direct object of a causative verb is permitted.

A set of verbs in English which show that something has been placed in a new or different category or that it has been changed in some way are called factitive verbs and they take object complements.  In that sense, these factitive verbs are causative.
The verbs listed elsewhere on this site that fall into this category are: announce, appoint, assess, believe, call, choose, consider, declare, deem, designate, dye, elect, find, judge, label, make, name, nominate, opt for, paint, proclaim, pronounce, select, sweep and a few other close synonyms.
Examples of them are:

He announced it finished
They appointed her their representative
She assessed Mary the best
She believed me mistaken
I called him a genius
As a co-worker, she chose John
They consider me a fool
The referee declared her the winner
I deemed it important
They designated John chairman
We dyed it blue
The people elected him president
I found it inedible
They judged her the best person for the job
I labelled it poison
He made me angry
I named the cat 'Nicotine'
They nominated her to answer the question
I opted for her company's offer
I painted the door green
They pronounced the job well done
They proclaimed him emperor
We selected her our agent
I swept the room clean

We noted in this section that factitive verbs are causal in that sense because there is, in fact a distinct difference between the verbs.
Causative verbs, properly defined, require a secondary action so we get, for example:
    They had her re-write the letters
in which there are two actions: had and re-write.
Factitive verbs require no secondary actions and are sufficient in themselves so there is a distinct difference between, e.g.:
    They made her the manager (factitive use)
    They made her stay late at the office (causative use).



Synthetic causative verbs

Some verbs are formed by the affixation of suffixes (usually to adjectives) to make a causative sense of investing the object with the characteristics of the noun or adjective from which the verb is formed.  Here are some examples with the four suffixes which allow this:

-ate activate authenticate substantiate facilitate
-ify beautify humidify gentrify codify
-ise/-ize terrorise containerise nationalize naturalize
-en whiten lengthen stiffen deafen

Some of these verbs are formed with bound bases which do not have an independent existence.  Examples are:
    truncate (with no free morpheme trunc)
    deflate and inflate (with no free morphemes defl and infl)
    desiccate (with no free morpheme desicc)
    modify (with no free morpheme mod)
    clarify (with no free morpheme clar)
    plagiarise (with no free morpheme plagiar)
    exorcise (with no free morpheme exorc)
    enlighten (with no free morpheme enlight)
    embolden (with no free morpheme embold)
Usually, these verbs are derived directly from Latin bases or from Old French or Old English, e.g.:
    truncate from truncatus (Latin)
    desiccate from desiccare (Latin)
    modify from modifier (Old French)
    clarify from clarificare (Latin)
    enlighten from inlihtan (Old English)
Many BrE users prefer the -ize endings on these verbs because etymologically that makes sense.
For more on morphology, consult the guide, linked below.

These verbs are frequently encountered in non-agentive passive expressions in which the formation of an active-voice equivalent is problematic when it is possible at all.  For example, from:
    The area has been gentrified
    The population has been terrorised
    The results have been substantiated

and so on, it is difficult to form active clauses because the agent, if there is one, is obscure.  Such structures are, incidentally, often referred to as agentless passives.  For more on that, see the guide to the passive voice, linked below.


Other causative verbs

To identify a lexical verb which is causative, or can be in some meanings, there's a simple test of acceptability which depends on the meaning of a clause.  For example, it is possible to accept:
    Mary threw the book but it remained unharmed
but not:
    *Mary burnt the book but it remained unharmed
and the reason is simple: when a verb is causative, or used causatively, it must change the object in some way.
The test can be summarised as:
    Subject + Verb + Object + but the object remained unchanged
is unacceptable, then we have an instance of causative verb use but if the sentence so formed acceptable, we do not.

There are a limited number of causative verbs in any language.  English contains at least the following:


There are three provisos:

  1. Not all of these verbs are always causative because we can allow, for example:
        I pushed the boat but it didn't move
    implies no change in the object so no causative sense.
    Most are, however, causative in that the object is altered in some way by the action signalled in the verb.
  2. If the verb is introduced with something like tried to ... but or attempted to ... but then the sense may still be of a causative verb but the causation has failed for some reason.
  3. It is possible, and often attempted, to divide the list into those which only affect people and other sentient beings and those which can affect inanimate objects as well.  However, the division is not usually sustainable.  It is the case, for example, that provoke usually takes an animate, sentient object but it also possible to have, e.g.:
        The sunlight provoked the plant to flower
    although that is an unusual sense.



The causative structures

Now that we know a bit about causative verbs, we can look at causative structures.
The two verbs we shall consider here are confined to have and get as they appear in the structures and other causative verbs do not.
These two verbs are acting in these structures as primary auxiliary verbs.
The distinction is that the direct object of a causative verb is the person or object on which the obligation rests.  Causative structures, on the other hand, mark the object of the action in the main verb.
As we noted above: a causative verb is focused on who is affected, the causative structures focus on what is affected.

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. He got his wallet stolen by someone on the train
  4. She got her hand caught in the lift doors
  5. She got the shop burned down
  6. I got the work done at last
  7. I had the painting nearly finished

In all these cases we have the direct objects as:

  1. the house
  2. the car
  3. his wallet
  4. her hand
  5. the shop
  6. the work
  7. the painting

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


A summary of the meanings of causative structures.

The issues of meaning can be summarised like this with the cells in red being unavailable to express the intended meaning and those in orange denoting more formal or less common uses:
meanings summary


There are also things to notice about form.


The causative is not simple.  Here's a summary of the structures with examples:



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)




There are a few issues to consider.

  1. When it is acting as an auxiliary verb, have is conventionally contracted to one of its forms as in, e.g.:
        I've seen that (/aɪv.ˈsiːn.ðæt/)
        He'd already left (/hid.ɔːl.ˈre.di.left/)
        We've finished (/wiv.ˈfɪ.nɪʃt/)
    and so on.
    However, when it is forming a causative structure, this does not occur so:
        I had John fix the tap
    cannot be contracted to
        *I'd John fix the tap.
  2. Even when the full form of the verb is used in the perfect aspect, the /æ/ sound is often weakened to /ə/ so, for example
        I have seen that
    is pronounced as
        I had seen that
    but this does not occur with causative structures so the pronunciation retains the full form in:
        I have the car washed on Wednesdays
        She had her nails done
  3. The final 't' in got is frequently elided, especially when followed by a consonant sound.  When it is followed by a vowel, it is often converted to a glottal stop.  So, for example:
        I got John to do it
    is pronounced as:
        I got him to do it
    with an intrusive /w/ in all cases.



Teaching causatives

A key area to consider before embarking on the teaching of causative structures is how your learners' first languages encode the concepts.  All languages are capable of expressing the concepts, of course, and some do it by implication while others are very explicit about the type of causation and the nature of the object of causality.
Here's a very short list.


Some examples of other languages at work

The way that causative structures and causative verbs are used in languages other than English is very variable and very complex.  Some examples will suffice here but you need to rely on your own research to determine whether the learners you are dealing with will have difficulties understanding the concept in English.  Almost all learners will have problems with the structure because it is a complex area.

and the list could go on for some time.
The moral of this is that you should not assume that either the concept or the form of the causative in English will be familiar or accessible to speakers of other languages and this is a source, naturally, of difficulty and error for learners.




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. SVAOVP (Subject – Auxiliary verb – Object – Verb participle) as in
          I had my house painted
    2. SVAOIVPOD (Subject – Auxiliary verb – Indirect object – Verb participle –  Direct object) 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 alerted 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, linked below.)
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 or get done by someone else that they would normally do for themselves:
    wash the car
    do the shopping
    tie shoelaces
    change a light bulb

You may like to introduce this with some speculation about how the person got his or her arm broken, of course.


Related guides
catenative verbs for the guide (mostly) to the use of the infinitive vs. the gerund
the passive voice for the guide to how and when the passive is used
suasion for a guide to the distinctions between hortation and obligation
morphology for more on bound bases and much else
drilling ideas for some ideas in the teacher development section of this site
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
Todd, L & Hancock, I, 1986, International English Usage, Beckenham: Croom Helm