Making Things Happen (Indirectly): A Guide to Causative Constructions

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  • Language is all about expressing ourselves clearly, and a key part of that is being able to show cause and effect. Causative constructions come in handy when we want to talk about situations where we cause something to happen, but not necessarily by doing it ourselves. In essence, causative constructions let us highlight the role of an "instigator" who brings about a change or an action performed by someone else. Let's delve into the world of causative constructions and explore how they work!

So, What Exactly is a Causative Construction?

In linguistics, a causative construction is a type of sentence structure that emphasizes causation. It highlights how one person or thing (the causer) brings about another action or state of being.

Causative constructions in a nutshell, show how one person or thing (the causer) triggers an event (the caused event) without directly doing it themselves. This shift in focus emphasizes who initiated the action, rather than who physically carried it out. Let's see an example to illustrate this:

Direct Action:

I cleaned the room. (I am the one performing the cleaning)

Causative Construction:

I had the room cleaned by a professional. (I caused the cleaning to happen, but someone else did the actual cleaning)

As you can see, the causative construction uses an additional verb (often "have" or "get") along with the past participle of the main verb to show causation.

Different Ways to Express Causation

English offer various ways to express causation, where one person or thing (the causer) influences another (the caused event). Here are some of the most common ones:

  1. Using Causative Verbs

    Some verbs inherently express causation. These include verbs like "make," "have," "get," "help," "force," and "cause" itself. For example:

    • The teacher made me stay after class (Cause: Teacher's action, Effect: Staying after class)
    • I had my hair cut yesterday (Cause: My decision, Effect: Hair getting cut by someone else)
  2. Using "Have" or "Get" with the Past Participle

    This is a common construction for talking about getting something done by someone else, often in a professional setting. The structure is: Have/Get + Object (the person) + Past Participle (the verb) For example:

    • I'm going to get my car washed this weekend (Cause: My request, Effect: Car getting washed)
    • We always have our groceries delivered (Cause: Our arrangement, Effect: Groceries being delivered)
  3. Using Modal Verbs

    Sometimes, modal verbs like "can" or "must" can be used to show causation, particularly when talking about permission or obligation. For example:

    • The rain can cancel the picnic (Cause: Rain, Effect: Picnic cancellation)
    • You must finish your homework before playing (Cause: Obligation set, Effect: Finishing homework)

Creating Causative Effects with Verbs

Here are some common causative verb constructions in English:

  1. Forceful Causation (Make + Infinitive):

    This form emphasizes the causer compelling someone to do something. Example:

    • She made him clean the entire house.
    • She made her children finish their homework before dinner.
    • The boss made the employees work overtime to meet the deadline.
  2. Arranged Causation (Have + Object Pronoun + Bare Infinitive):

    This structure indicates the causer arranging for someone else to perform an action. Example:

    • I had my car serviced last week.
    • He had his assistant book his flights for the business trip.
    • We had our house painted last summer.
  3. Permission (Let + Object Pronoun + Bare Infinitive):

    This form highlights the act of giving someone permission to do something. Example:

    • They let me borrow their laptop for the presentation.
    • They let their dog roam freely in the backyard.
    • Could you let me borrow your pen for a moment?
  4. Persuasion (Get + Object Pronoun + to + Base Verb):

    This construction suggests the causer convincing someone to do something. Example:

    • He got his team to finish the project ahead of schedule.
    • She got her friend to help her move to a new apartment.
    • The teacher got the students to participate actively in the class discussion.

Causative constructions can get even more nuanced. Here are a few additional points to consider:

  1. The Causer's Role: The causer (the person or thing initiating the action) can be explicitly mentioned or implied.
  2. Degree of Causation: Sometimes, the causative construction might indicate a stronger or weaker influence on the outcome. "Force" suggests a more direct cause than "allow.".
  3. Passive Voice: Causative constructions can also be used in the passive voice, focusing more on the effect than the causer. For example:
    • The window was broken by a stray baseball" (Effect: Broken window, Causer: Implied - the baseball)

Using Causative Constructions Effectively

Causative constructions are a powerful tool for expressing a range of ideas. Here are some situations where they come in handy:

  1. Shifting the Focus: By using a causative construction, you can shift the focus of the sentence to the instigator (the one causing the action) rather than the person performing the action. Example:
  • "The child broke the vase" (focuses on the child's action) vs.
  • "The child's carelessness made the vase break" (focuses on the cause, the carelessness).
  1. Expressing Indirect Causation: Causative constructions are useful when the cause-and-effect relationship is less direct. Example:
  • The loud music kept me awake all night. (The music didn't directly make me stay awake, but it caused me to be unable to sleep)

Conclusion

Mastering causative construction adds depth and precision to your language skills, allowing you to express causation with clarity and efficiency. By understanding causative constructions, you can add variety and precision to your writing and speaking. They allow you to talk about situations where you weren't the direct actor but still played a role in making something happen. So, the next time you want to express causation, reach for those causative verbs and "have/get" constructions!

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  • References
    • English Grammar for Students of Chinese What Is the Causative Construction? (Pg 69) By Matthew B. Christensen

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