Author Topic: How the causatives enable intransitive verbs to overcome their intransitivity  (Read 16473 times)

Joe Carillo

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As we all know, English has three types of verbs: transitive verbs, intransitive verbs, and linking verbs. A verb is transitive when it has the ability to pass on its action to an object or something that can receive that action; intransitive when it can’t pass on its action to anything in the sentence and simply dissipates that action in itself; and linking when it just connects a subject to a complement and makes the sentence flow properly.

We are all familiar with how transitive verbs and linking verbs work, so there should be no need to discuss them any further here. But I think we need to look more closely into how intransitive verbs work considering that they can’t pass on their action to an object. This is precisely what happens in sentences like “The witness disappeared” and “The boat arrived.” The intransitive verbs “disappeared” and “arrived” simply convey the idea that something has taken place; their respective subjects (“witness” and “boat”) don’t do the action, and these verbs can’t have any object either to receive that action. It therefore looks as if their intransitivity is such a big handicap as to make their usage in language marginal compared to transitive verbs.     

This isn’t the case, through. As I explain in the essay below that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in 2004, English has a grammatical device for making intransitive verbs surmount their handicap of intransitivity: the causatives. The causatives are a special class of verbs that, in effect, enable the subject to perform the action of an intransitive verb on an object. Causative verbs thus make intransitive verbs of much wider use in language despite the limitation imposed by their intransitivity. (June 4, 2011)

Helping intransitive verbs surmount their handicap

As we learn early about English grammar, intransitive verbs are handicapped by their inability to take a direct object. Another way of saying this is that a subject cannot perform the action of intransitive verbs on a direct object. This is why a sentence construction like the following doesn’t work: “The magician disappeared the rabbit.” Because of its intransitivity, the verb “disappear” simply won’t take “rabbit” or any other object. Only transitive verbs can take objects and act on them, as “feed” in “The magician feeds the rabbit” and “eat” in “The rabbit eats the carrot.”

But this doesn’t mean that when the operative verb is intransitive, the subject cannot ever make an action happen to an object, or make that object perform the action of the verb. We know, for instance, that the verbs “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” enables the intransitive verb “disappear” to cause its action to happen to an object, as in these sentences: “The magician made the rabbit disappear.” “The magician got the rabbit to disappear.” “The magician had the rabbit disappear.” “The magician let the rabbit disappear.” The subject in these sentences is not seen as performing the action itself, but uses some other unstated agency (“magic” or “sleight of hand”?) to perform that action.

We know, too, that “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” can also make objects do the action of intransitive verbs: “She made the dog jump.” “She got the dog to jump.” “She had the dog jump.” “She let the dog jump.” In these three sentences, it’s clear that the “dog” is the object of the verbs “made,” “got,” and “had,” “she” is the agent causing the action, and the action of the intransitive “jump” is what this agent causes the object to perform.

The verbs “make,” “get,” “have,” and “let” belong to a class of verbs called causatives. In sentences that use a causative verb, the subject doesn’t perform the action of the operative verb but causes someone or something else to do it. And as we have seen above, causative verbs do very well in enabling intransitive verbs to surmount their handicap of being unable to act on an object.

We mustn’t think, though, that causative verbs are meant only for intransitive verbs. They work as well with transitive ones: “The mother made her child take the medicine.” “The movie director had the leading lady wear a wig.” The big difference is that transitive verbs—working with causative verbs or not—always need an object somewhere in the sentence for the latter to make sense. Drop the objects “medicine” and “wig” from the two sentences given earlier, for instance, and both sentences will collapse.

The English language actually has many more causative verbs of the enabling kind, and to our small inventory so far we will now add these other common ones: “ask,” “allow,” “command,” “compel,” “convince,” “encourage,” “employ,” “entice,” “force,” “hire,” “induce,” “insist,” “motivate,” “permit,” “persuade,” “require,” “suggest,” and “urge.” Each needs to work on an operative verb for the latter’s action to take place at all.

Let’s now examine the ways we can construct sentences using causative verbs.

The most common, of course, is the construction where the causative verb is immediately followed by an object (noun or pronoun), which is followed in turn by an infinitive (“to” + verb stem): “Some countries require foreign visitors to present a visa.” “We hired temporary workers to handle the seasonal demand.” “Our school encouraged us to learn English.”

The causative construction above has a variant specifically for the causatives “let,” “had,” and “made,” which can only take the so-called “bare infinitive” (the infinitive without “to”): “Amanda let her boyfriend kiss her.” “The mayor had the illegal loggers face the irate townsfolk.” “The manager made her pay for the missing goods.” Force-fitting “to” into such constructions results in disconcerting—and unacceptable—sentences like “Amanda let her boyfriend to kiss her.”

The third type of causative construction is for the causative verbs “insist,” “suggest,” “ask,” “demand,” or “recommend,” which can neither take the infinitive nor the bare infinitive form of the operative verb. These causative verbs can work only in “that”-clause constructions like these: “The tour guide suggested that we leave.” “The judge demanded that the accused appear in court.” “The consultant recommended that we divest.”

The second verbs in these sentences are always in the base form, without tense, which differs from non-causative “that”-clause constructions like, say, “The tour guide proved that we took a longer route,” in which the verb in the “that”-clause takes a tense. (December 6, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, December 6, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.