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The Causative Form

Something native speakers often say, but don’t often write, is that they “had/got something done” for them. ESL students are often confused when they first see this awkward grammar structure, and simply assume that a sentence like “I got my hair cut” means “I cut my hair.” But in reality, that isn’t the case! See the examples below. As you read them, ask yourself: who is the actor?

  • “I got my hair cut.”

  • “I had my car repaired.”

If you answered that the speaker (I) is the actor, you’re incorrect! When “I got” or “I had” is used at the beginning of a sentence, it usually means that the speaker received a service from someone else! So, if your friend John says “I got my hair cut,” he’s not saying that he cut his hair. Instead, he’s indicating that he paid someone else to do it for him. Pretty straightforward, right? This sentence structure is called the causative form.

We use the causative form to indicate that someone did something for us (or to us). But what ESL learners don’t always realize is that this form isn’t exclusively used for positive experiences, like new haircuts and car repairs. The causative can also be used to show that someone experienced something negative, like robbery or coercion. See the examples below:

-“I had my car stolen last weekend.”

-“I got my phone taken away after school.”

The speaker can also include a passive object to be more specific about who acted when this sentence structure is used (as below), but this is optional:

-“I had my car stolen last weekend (by some local thieves).”

-“I got my phone taken away after school (by my parents).”

It’s also worth noting that statements containing “had” are more formal than statements containing “got,” although both are acceptable in most cases. If you have doubts about which form to use, play it safe by using “had.” This verb is acceptable at all levels of formality and in all English-speaking countries. “Got” is less formal, and more commonly used in American English.

In addition to “Had” and “got,” there are also cases where the verb “made” is used to form a causative statement. This happens in serious situations, usually where the speaker has no choice but to comply with an order. See the examples below:

-“They made me give them my wallet and keys”

-“They made us sign an NDA.”

In both examples, the speaker indicates that they only had one choice. Unlike statements containing the verbs “have” and “get,” statements that use “made” never say who performed the action at the end of a sentence. We can’t use “by” statements at the end of causative sentences containing “made!” That’s because these sentences are not in the passive voice. Instead, this information is presented at the beginning of the statement:

-“The thieves made me give them my wallet and keys.”

-“My boss made us sign an NDA.”

Unlike “have” and “get,” causative statements that use “make” ALWAYS use the active voice. For this reason, they convey more force and less choice than causative statements using “have” and “get.”

As awkward as this structure seems, ESL students must understand how to use it to effectively communicate with native speakers, who use causative statements daily. Fluid communication is possible without using causative statements at all, but students who form them effectively are likely to receive higher speaking scores on exams like the IELTS, TOEFL, or Cambridge: First (FCE). For more tips, strategies, and information regarding exams, book a trial session to assess your level and discuss your needs today.

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