Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mostly causatives - a look at have, get, make, let and lots more

The term causative verb is not used very much in EFL teaching. The term doesn't even appear in the index of Swan, the grammar bible of TEFL, although Murphy does have causative have (have something done). But it does starts to appear when you get to certificate exam levels, when it refers almost exclusively to that same 'have something done' construction. I thought there must be more to it than that, and started to investigate - what, for example constitutes a causative verb, how many of them are there? It was easier said than done!

Practise (mostly) causative verbs with these quizzes / exercises.

  1. Causative verbs - basic sentence structure
  2. The three exceptions - have, let and make
  3. The verb that likes to swing both ways - help
  4. Two special verbs - get and have
  5. The construction - have something done
  6. Certain verbs that can also take the ...-ing form without an object.
  7. Verbs of permission - let, allow and permit
  8. Verbs of compulsion - tell, order, make and force
  9. The construction - something needs doing
  10. Non-causative use


What is a causative verb? Investigation.

Just about every website you visit has a different selection or definition of causative verbs. Of the better grammar sites (ESL) lists only make and have, although on their Grammar for native speakers pages they define a causative verb as:
A verb - such as cause, allow, help, enable, keep, hold, let, force, require, and make - used to indicate that some person or thing helps to make something happen - make being the prototypical causative verb.
while CCC expands the list a bit, and this list is repeated quite a lot round the Internet:
let, help, allow, have, require, allow, motivate, get, make, convince, hire, assist, encourage, permit, employ, force
One blogger insists rather pompously, however, that there are only three - make, get and have - and that let and allow can't possibly be causitive verbs as they don't cause anything. But as he doesn't even include cause as a causative verb, or force, which sounds pretty causative to me, I think we'll ignore this minimalist approach.
Another teacher blogger, Jennifer, was asked by a student for a definitive list of causative verbs and had similar problems to me when she consulted her collection of grammar books; there's a link to her discussion below. She makes the point that what we often call causative verbs are not so much to do with causing something, but rather verbs which follow a certain pattern:
subject + verb + object + infinitive
She cites a list of a 32 verbs from Fuchs and Bonner:
advise, allow, ask, cause, challenge, choose, convince, enable, encourage, expect, forbid, force, get, help, hire, invite, need, order, pay, permit, presuade, promise, remind, request, require, teach, tell, urge, want, warn, wish, would like
Now I thought I was beginning to get somewhere. Then I found some research by somebody at Boston University, which lists about 90 such verbs following this pattern, which he calls 'mostly causative verbs' - unfortunately he doesn't say which are which. He divides them into twelve groups:
  • want, would like, need etc
  • tell, order, force etc
  • ask, beg, urge etc
  • remind, advise, warn etc
  • influence, encourage, motivate etc
  • cause, lead, drive etc
  • allow, forbid, invite etc
  • rush, hurry etc
  • train, teach, raise etc
  • pay, employ, hire
  • expect, trust
  • The three exceptions - have, let and make
The following exercises deal with verbs that are often referred to as causative. I don't claim that every verb that follows is a causative verb, but they all follow similar patterns, which is more important form our point of view than what we call them. I'll leave it to the linguists to sort out which are causative and which aren't.
Try the exercises first without looking at the answers, but if you get stuck you can find answers to all the exercises at the end of this post.

Click and Drop - Where you see the red question mark symbol ?, place the cursor over it for instructions, using your mouse.

1. Causative and causative-like verbs - the basic structure

Ex 1a - Match the beginnings and endings. ?

1. Her boss told her to go homea)to work longer hours.
2. She asked the children to tidyb)friendly but polite.
3. I would like you to write downc)company cheques in his absence
4. He warned the students notd)to report on the matter.
5. She encouraged him to applye)to forget to revise for the exams.
6. The judge invited the youngf)as she wasn't looking very well.
7. I was always taught to beg)in public again!
8. The company hired consultantsh)for his mother's birthday.
9. I'll thank you not to criticise mei)man to explain his actions.
10. He has authorised me to signj)the following sentences.
11. The staff have been persuadedk)their rooms before Granny arrived.
12. She reminded him to buy a presentl)for a better job.
Notice the basic structure for 'mostly causative verbs' with positive and negative infinitives:
subject + verb + object + to + infinitive + complement
Her bosstoldherto go home
subject + verb + object + not to + infinitive + complement
The teacherwarnedthe studentsnot to forgetto revise
subject + be + verb (3rd form) + to + infinitive + complement
The staff have been persuadedto work longer hours
subject+ be + verb (3rd form) + not to + infinitive + complement
The boy was orderednot to do it again

Ex 1b - A teacher is instructing his students. Complete the gaps, using the verb in brackets in the correct form, so that the second sentence has the same meaning as the first. Use the structures above and the example (EG) as models. You may have to use Passive and / or negatives.

EGThey were made to stay late by the teacher.
The teacher forced them to stay late. (force)
1.They were ordered to keep quiet.
The teacher quiet. (tell)
2.They were requested to fill in the forms.
He the forms. (ask)
3.They were told that they mustn't cheat.
The teacher . (warn)
4.He asked them if they would like to enter an essay competition.
The students an essay competition. (invite)
5.The teacher told them what a good idea it was to study hard.
He hard. (encourage)
6.He told them not to forget to revise for their exams.
The teacher for their exams. (remind)
7.The students dissuaded the teacher from keeping them late in class.
The teacher them late in class. (persuade)
8.They learnt from the teacher to respect other people's opinions.
He other people's opinions. (teach)

2. Three exceptions - have, let and make

Look at these three sentences:
He had her play the whole thing again.
She let the children play in the garden.
He made us tidy up after the picnic.
these three verbs have a slightly different structure. Complete the rules:
subject + causative verb + infinitive without '', which is also known as the infinitive.
Note that of these three verbs only make is used in the Passive, in which case we need to use 'to'.
We were made to tidy up after the picnic.

Ex 2 - Complete the gaps, using the verb in brackets in the correct form, so that the second sentence has the same meaning as the first. Use the sentences above as models.

1.We had to work late (make). The boss late. (make)
2.We were allowed to leave early. She early. (let)
3.We were asked to do overtime. She overtime. (have) [US English]
4.She forced us to miss lunch. We lunch. (make)
There's more about these verbs in later sections.

3. The verb that likes to swing both ways - help

Look at these two sentences:
Could you help me to move this table.
She helped her brother do his homework.
With the verb help we can use a 'to' infinitive or a bare infinitive

4. Two special verbs - have and get

Look at this conversation. An American tourist is staying in a British hotel:
US tourist: Could you have somebody come and look at my shower. It doesn't seem to be working properly.
Reception: I'll get a technician to come up and look at it straightaway, sir.
The expressions have somebody do something and get somebody to do something mean something like arrange for somebody to do something, and could be replaced by ask, tell etc, depending on the relationship between the two people.
Have somebody do something is more common in American English. We British tend to prefer the 'get' version.

Ex 4 - Complete the gaps, using the verb in brackets in the correct form, so that the second sentence has the same meaning as the first. Use the sentences above as models.

1.I'll arrange for my assistant to send you all the details.
I'll you all the details (have)
2.I'll make sure she includes an application form.
I'll an application form. (get)
3.He persuaded her to apply for the job.
He for the job. (get)
4.He told her to rewrite the letter.
He the letter. (have)
We can't turn these into a normal passive with the verb be, but see the next section for a different passive-like construction.

5. have (get) something done

Ex 5a - Look at these sentences. Who does the action, me or somebody else? Tick (check) the appropriate boxes and then check.
MeSomebody else
1.I'll cut the grass tomorrow.
2.I'll have the grass cut tomorrow.
3.I do my hair every month.
4.I have my hair done every month.
5.I repaired my car yesterday.
6.I had my car repaired yesterday.
We use the passive-like construction have something done when we arrange for somebody else to do something and when it is unnecessary to say who does it, or it is obvious who does it.
In informal spoken English we can also use the verb get with a similar meaning.
It's time you got your hair cut.
We're getting the front door repainted next week.
The expression have something done is also used for experiences (usually unpleasant) that happen to us, which of course we don't arrange for somebody to do.
He had his wallet stolen in Barcelona.
Have you ever had your car broken into?
The verb get is not usually used with this meaning.

Ex 5b - Complete the gaps, using the words in brackets and the structure have something done.

1.I need to for my new passport. (my photo / take)
2.When did you last ? (the chimney / sweep)
3.We're in our garden. (a swimming pool / build)
4.We last week. (a satellite dish / install)
5.She needs to , she's so forgetful. (her head / examine)
6.They while they were on holiday. (their house / burgle)
7.My daughter wants . (her ears / pierced)
8.We'd better while we're here. ( tyres / check)
9.They're tomorrow. (a new dishwasher / deliver)
10.He away by the police. (driving licence / take)

6. Alternative structure with the -ing form and without an object.

A few of these causative or causative-like verbs can be used in certain circumstances with the -ing form without an object.
allow · recommend · encourage · allow · permit · forbid

Ex 6 - Fill the gaps as in the example (EG)

EGHe permits us to smoke during breaks.
He permits smoking during breaks.
1.She advised us to take out insurance.
She out insurance.
2.We'd recommend you to book your flight early.
We'd your flight early.
3.Technology encourages us to multitask.
Technology .
4.She only allows us to smoke on the balcony.
She only on the balcony.
Note what happens in the passive:
We aren't allowed to smoke in the house.
- Smoking isn't allowed in the house.
They are forbidden to talk during meals.
- Talking is forbidden during meals.

7. Verbs of permission - let, allow, and permit

These verbs can be used in various ways as well as in the classic causative structure:

Ex 7 - Fill the gaps with appropriate words or expressions from the box. ?

subject + verb + object + infinitive
1.The management staff to smoke in certain areas. (more formal)
2.They us to use a special room for smoking. (neutral)
3.They us smoke in a specified area. (more informal)
subject + passive verb + infinitive
4.Staff are only (or allowed) to smoke in designated areas.
5.You are (or not permitted) to smoke in any other part of the office.
subj + verb + -ing form
6.We do not (or permit) smoking in the kitchen.
Other passive structures
7.Smoking is (or allowed) only in specified areas.
8.Smoking is (or not permitted) except in specified areas.
9.It is to smoke in the kitchen.
verb + adverb particles
10.She wouldn't (or allow) me in.
11.The cat isn't (or let) out at night.


  1. let is not used with to
  2. Passive structures are common with permitted and allowed, but not let
  3. The passive structure with it - it is permitted - but not it is allowed or it is let
  4. Adverb particles (in, out etc) with allow and let, but not permit

8. Verbs of compulsion - tell, order, make and force

Ex 8 - The students are back with their teacher. What did he get them to do? Make sentences using the verb given in brackets plus a verb from the box, as in the example.

stay   stop   open   look at   write   do   finish  
EG He instructed them to open their our books. (instruct)
1.He page 27. (tell)
2.He an essay. (make)
3.He writing. (order)
4.He late. (force)
5.They their work. (be told)
6.They it all again. (be made)

9. something needs doing

The verb need has several functions. We saw above that it can be used like a causative verb in the pattern:
I need somebody to do this for me.
But in British English it also has another use, related to have something done.

Ex 9a - Look at these sentences. Who should do the action, the subject or anybody (it doesn't matter)? Tick (check) the appropriate boxes and then check.

The subjectAnybody
1.I need to hoover (vacuum) the carpet
2.The carpet needs hoovering.
3.The dinner needs preparing.
4.She needs to prepare the dinner.
5.I need to feed the cats.
6.The cats need feeding.
This has the same meaning as a passive infinitive where the agent isn't mentioned:
The carpet needs hoovering
= The carpet needs to be hoovered

Ex 9b - Make sentences with need(s) using the verbs in the box in the -ing form, as in the example.

clean   iron   check   walk   return   polish   tidy   change   water
EGThe dogs need walking .
1.My shirt .
2.The sitting room .
3.The plants .
4.The baby .
5.My shoes .
6.The car brakes .
7.That library book .
8.The bathroom .
Sometimes we can also use a structure
She needs her head examining
= She needs her head examined.

10. Non-causative use

A lot of causative verbs are also used in non-causative contexts. For example:
He told his daughter to put away her clothes. = instruct, order (causative)
He told his daughter a bedtime story. (non-causative)
She asked her brother to help her. = request (causative)
She asked her brother what the capital of Argentina was. (non-causative)

Answers to the exercises - click on a button and then go back to the exercise.


Grammar etc


  • English Learner - a really nice exercise with make, get and have based on a little story.


NM said...

This looks really useful. Thank you for posting!

Alberto said...

Awesome post. Thank you!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Amazing post I want a babay

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Barry Pennock-Speck said...

I think these are causatives and permissives rather than just causatives. BUT great post as usual!