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What Is a Causative?

By T. Carrier
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many languages contain a causative voice. Causatives are means of expressing an occurrence in which a subject word acts upon a later word or phrase, and thus causes a change in state for the latter. In more general terms, the causative — usually an action word — indicates that something has transformed something else. This change can be reflected in various grammatical ways, including adding letters to action words, changing letters within the words, or including additional words.

For a causative state to occur in linguistics, there must be evidence of a cause and effect relationship. In other words, the subject of a phrase or idea must have caused an action, an event, or a change of being. Therefore, the causative must take place before the person, thing, or happening it acts upon has changed. In addition, a reasonable assumption must exist that the latter action or alteration would not have taken place without the presence of the causative subject. For example, if "they raise the drawbridge," a reader can likely infer that the drawbridge would not be in its risen state if not for the actions of "they."

Various grammatical methods are used to express causatives. In many languages, additional letters are added to the beginning or end of a word. As an example, a classic language of Indo-Aryan origin made words causative by attaching the letters "a" and "y" to the word's end. These methods are typically known as morphological causatives.

Other language grammars employ auxiliary verbs, which are entire words that supplement another action word. The English word "had" can be used in this manner: "She had him killed." These types may be called periphrastic causatives.

Lexical causatives, on the other hand, change certain letters or symbols within the action word — or use another form of the word — in order to create causation. Consider words that define an action of moving upwards. In English, the word might be "rise," whereas in Japanese it would be agaru. The word is altered in both languages to reflect that a subject is making an object to move up. For English, the word is changed to "raise," and in Japanese, the word becomes ageru.

Different causative forms may indicate the nature of a cause and effect relationship. The choice of a causative action word can infer whether the action is done with intent or by accident. Further, the word choice may also indicate the willingness of the affected object or person to be acted upon. When the English verb "made" is used in a sentence, it often signals a deliberate, involuntary act, as in "I made him go to the doctor."

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