Author Topic: When disaster strikes, the grammar for avoiding blame comes to the fore  (Read 5509 times)

Joe Carillo

  • Administrator
  • Hero Member
  • *****
  • Posts: 4653
  • Karma: +205/-2
    • View Profile
    • Email
It takes great courage and a strong sense of honor to admit culpability for a wrenchingly disastrous outcome, like the brutal annihilation of 44 Special Action Force commandos by Muslim terrorists in Maguindanao on January 25, 2015. Finger-pointing becomes the order of the day for those responsible in the line of command, and very often, the language used to wriggle out of blame and accountability becomes disingenuously familiar and—if truth be told—nothing short of scandalous.

In English, in particular, a special verb form lends itself very nicely to that pass-the-blame routine: the causative verb. I wrote at length about this verb in an essay for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in early 2006, then posted that essay here in the Forum in December of 2011 in the aftermath of the horrendous disaster wrought by Typhoon Sendong in southern Philippines (fatalities: 1,268). This week I am again posting the essay to help us see through the smokescreen of words coming from the usual finger-pointers, the better to figure out who among them is ultimately to blame and need to be punished in full measure for the horrific death of the 44 SAF commandos. (February 15, 2015)

Using causative and factitive verbs

When an awful act or serious mistake is made, particularly one that leads to a disastrous or tragic outcome, rare indeed is the soul that comes out in the open to take the blame for it. The usual response of the culpable is to ascribe the deed to somebody else or something else:

“They had me scoop the money from the vault at gunpoint.” (The perpetrator of an inside job is trying to extricate himself from the crime.)

“An earthquake made the mountain unleash the deadly mudslide.” (Actually, loggers had ruthlessly stripped the mountain of every inch of its forest cover.)

“The steel gate’s collapse caused the people to stampede.” (The crowd-control measures simply were too puny for so large a mass of humanity aiming to get rich quick.)

The English language has, in fact, evolved a special verb form to make people avoid acknowledging responsibility—if only for the moment—when caught in such situations. That verb form is the causative verb, which carries out an action that causes another action to happen. In the three sentences given as examples above, in particular, “have” is the causative verb in the first, causing the action “scoop” to happen; “make” is the causative verb in the second, causing the action “unleash” to happen; and “cause” is the causative verb in the third, causing the action “stampede” to happen. In each case, the crime or calamitous outcome is acknowledged but no one is accepting responsibility for it.

Causative verbs are, of course, not only meant to make people avoid taking responsibility for things that have gone sour or disastrous. In general, they are used to indicate the sort of actions that people don’t do themselves but allow, ask, or force other people to do: “Emily’s supervisor permitted her to leave early today.” “Our landlady reminded us to pay our overdue rent.” “The thieves forced the tourists to hand over their jewelry.” Note that in a causative construction, the subject doesn’t actually do the action of the operative verb but only causes the object to do that action. In the last example above, for instance, the subject is “the thieves” and the object is “the tourists,” and the causative verb “force” makes this object do the action of handing over the jewelry.

The other most commonly used causative verbs are “allow,” “assist,” “convince,” “employ,” “help,” “hire,” “let,” “motivate,” “remind,” “require,” and “urge.” When used in a sentence, practically all of these causative verbs are followed by an object (a noun or pronoun) followed by an infinitive: “We allowed foreigners to invest in the local mining industry.” “The recruiter convinced me to leave for Jeddah at once.” “The desperate applicant employed deceit to get the plum job.”

The only notable exceptions to this pattern are the causative verbs “have,” “make,” and “let.” They are followed by a noun or pronoun serving as an object, but this time what follows the object is not an infinitive but the base form of the verb (meaning its infinitive form without the “to”):

“I had my fellow investors sign the incorporation papers yesterday.”

“They made him finish writing the book in only five weeks.”

“We let the students pick the class schedules they want.”

Like the causative verb, another type of verb that exhibits peculiar behavior is the so-called factitive verb. While the usual transitive verb can take only one direct object, a factitive verb actually needs two of them. There are only a few of its kind, however, among them “choose,” “elect,” “judge,” “adjudge,” “make,” “name,” and “select.”

Here’s how a factitive verb works: “The prestigious finance magazine last night chose our company “Best at Consumer Goods” in its annual poll.” Here, “choose” is the factitive verb, “our company” is the direct object, and “‘Best at Consumer Goods’” is the objective complement—all three in tight, uninterrupted interlock. (February 20, 2006)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 20, 2006 issue © 2006 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: February 16, 2015, 08:52:48 AM by Joe Carillo »


  • Initiate
  • *
  • Posts: 12
  • Karma: +0/-0
    • View Profile
Re: When disaster strikes, the grammar for avoiding blame comes to the fore
« Reply #1 on: February 18, 2015, 08:48:08 PM »
These verbs are the equivalents of "the devil made me do it."  I remember when we as young students looked at these disasters as opportunities to use the passive voice like, "I was forced to ----.  But I have to admit using your causative verbs with disguised infinitives (to, omitted) have some elegance that could tempt glib talkers to spew.