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To me, the boldfaced part of 'don't get me started' looks like a causative because of the form:

get + object + past participle

and the meaning:

More often, the intent is negative and the expression is used to express exasperation or strong dislike, etc. There may [be] an element of warning in it: If I start talking about this, I’ll never stop!"- Idioms Online

I'd say that, in a way, the idiom implies that the subject of this imperative sentence may cause the speaker to start endlessly talking about something in an extremely emotional way just by mentioning the topic.

At the same time, this meaning is closer to causative 'make', which uses a different grammar pattern (make +object + infinitive).

So, I'm in doubt about grammatical category of "get me started" in the mentioned idiom.

Please advise whether my reasoning appropriately places it in the causative category, or is it some different piece of grammar?

P.S. I've looked through the forum, Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, consulted some other resources, and, naturally, Googled it, but none of that has brought much clarity, hence, posting the question.

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1 Answer 1

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Don't get me started is a fixed phrase with a specific meaning. The don't is required; the whole thing is short for Don't let me start to talk about X.

The phrase get X started (where X is something startable, like a job or a motor or a list of complaints) means to cause X to be in a "started" condition, which may mean a lot of things, but in this idiom refers only to the speaker's potential complaints having a beginning but not an end.

The fact that cause is part of the meaning of the idiom makes it a causative construction. There is no formula for causatives in English grammar, so "causative" is not a grammatical term in English, but descriptive, like saying to smoke in He stopped to smoke is a "purpose infinitive". There's nothing marked as "purpose", but that's what it means; and there's nothing marked as "causative", either.

Other ways to indicate causation abound

  • I got him to mow the lawn.
  • I had him mow the lawn.
  • I told/ordered/forced/hired him to mow the lawn.

These are all causatives, too, but not because of their grammar.

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  • 1
    The phrase "to get someone going" can have a similar meaning, but it doesn't require the "don't."
    – alphabet
    May 27, 2023 at 1:59
  • Yes, that's a general construction - get X V-ing - We got them singing finally, He got the door off/open/closed/closing properly May 27, 2023 at 2:02
  • @JohnLawler Thank you so much, Professor Lawler! Your detailed answer is of so much help, as well as the main principle of defining the causative in various constructions. I'm thrilled to read your articles and other numerous contributions to this website.
    – Lyrviss
    May 27, 2023 at 13:01
  • Well ‘got him to mow’ and ‘had him mow’ are causatives in a completely different way from “told/ordered/hired’. The first are only true if the mowing took place and was caused by the subject. Neither of those requirements is necessary for the truth of the latter group of sentences. May 28, 2023 at 17:47
  • That's why "causative" isn't a technical term in English syntax. Like "future" or "mood", they're evocative instead of definitive. May 28, 2023 at 17:51

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