Monday, January 2, 2012

The grammar for avoiding blame for awful or disastrous outcomes

Almost always, the end of the year is review time for what the individual or the institution has done or has been unable to do during the year in question. Since human nature makes it so difficult to admit failure and culpability, such annual reviews often also become occasions for passing the blame for awful or disastrous outcomes. For instance, in the case of the horrendous disaster wrought by Typhoon Sendong in southern Philippines recently, the finger-pointing for why it resulted in the loss of almost 2,000 lives continues without letup to this day. We all know the routine, and as always, the finger-pointing language used is both familiar and disheartening.

In the English language, in particular, there’s a special verb form that allows people to avoid acknowledging responsibility for things that go sour or tragic. That verb form is the causative verb, and in an essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in early 2006, I discussed how this verb lends itself very nicely to the pass-the-blame routine. I have decided to post that essay here to help us see through the smokescreen of words coming from the usual finger-pointers. Who knows, a good grasp of the grammar of the causative verbs could make us figure out intelligently rather than superstitiously who’s really to blame for the grave misfortunes that have hounded our country these past many months. (January 1, 2012)
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.

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