Student Stumper 24: Causative Verbs
QUESTION: What are causative verbs? Can you give me a list of them?
ANSWER: “Causative verbs [...] indicate that some person or thing helps to bring about a new state of affairs” (Biber, Conrad & Leech 108). In other words, we use a causative verb to show that someone or something somehow causes something to happen. The verb might be strong in meaning and imply force, for example, I make students rewrite their work. The verb might be soft in meaning and imply facilitating or permitting, for instance, I let them turn in their homework late. In contrast to definining causative verbs, providing a complete list may prove to be more of a challenge.
A student recently sent e-mail asking me to identify all causative verbs in English. She had learned only four (let, make, have, get), but another classmate told her there were many more. She wanted to know what those others were. This forced me to search my books for a supposedly complete list of causative verbs. All the sources I consulted named only a few examples beyond the more common ones: let, make, have, and get. Hmm…
I suppose the choice of presenting only the four abovementioned causative verbs is based on their high frequency and their relatively unique grammar, at least in the case of let, make, and have, as in “Let them enter.” = causative verb + object + base verb. This pattern isn’t followed by get or most other verbs in the same semantic class, such as allow, enable, or require. Compare: “Allow them to enter.” = causative verb + object + infinitive. Fuchs and Bonner offer a list of verbs using this second pattern (A-3, Chart 5). This list includes 32 verbs:
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
Note that the list is not titled “Causative Verbs” but rather “Verbs Followed by Objects and the Infinitive”. The very title makes me consider causative verbs from two different standpoints. First and foremost, we should view them as a semantic class of verbs. We’re grouping them by their common meaning and purpose in speech, which is to express how an event is somehow caused. However, attention needs to be given to the different grammatical patterns they follow. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English divides causative verbs into two groups:
- Causative verbs with nominalized direct objects = “This information enables the formulation of precise questions” (363).
- Causative verbs with following complement clauses = “What caused you to be ill?” (363) / “Police and council leaders agreed to let a court decide the fate of the trees” (363).
Based on the examples given, I see the second group breaking down further into at least two subgroups, clauses using the infinitive and clauses using the base verb. Would you agree?
I’m still not certain if I could offer a truly complete list of causative verbs, but I think it would be sufficient to work with a dozen or less of the more common ones. If I weren’t able to teach this topic based on a textbook unit and the choice of presentation rested solely with me, it would seem logical to first present a good mix (4-6) of causative verbs in a cohesive context and encourage students to grasp the common semantic thread in all the examples. After this, I’d present groups of causative verbs based on the patterns they follow.
I’ll offer an activity or two for causative verbs in my next post.
Biber, D., Conrad, S., and Leech, G. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Longman.
Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S. and Finnegan, E. (1999). Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Essex, England: Pearson Longman.