I've always held on to the definition that Causative Verbs express how the Noun before the Verb influences the execution of an action.

Similarly, the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English defines them as:

"Causative Verbs... indicate that some person or thing helps to bring about a new state of affairs."

I know that the verbs have, get, make, and let are the four prototypical Causatives. But then I got to thinking that let doesn't really “make” anything happen. And I just bunch let up with the other three (also allow) because of their similar structures and because it's more convenient to teach them as a group.

When learners and teachers expand the definition beyond the four most common Causatives, in both active and passive-like structures, the lines can get blurry. There are many long lists on the Net (one listed as many as 90 and called them “mostly Causatives”). I guess the problem is the definition of what's Causative to begin with. There are also those people who would identify Causatives by certain patterns that the words follow.

In any case, for this particular question, I’d settle for one verb that I’ve seen making the rounds on Causative lists: Is want a causative verb or not? And for me to make a sharper delineation of what's causative, I’d have to ask why.

2 Answers 2


Want is not causative.

A Causative verb can be paraphrased as "cause S to be true", where S is some proposition that might refer to

  • an event (e.g, cause it to explode)
    They exploded the bomb they'd dug up
  • an action (cause someone to trip)
    His older brother tripped him accidentally
  • a state (cause someone to be dead)
    We wouldn't have to kill anyone

These are, respectively, paraphrases for the causative transitive verbs explode, trip, and kill. All causative verbs are transitive, and there often exist intransitive inchoative verbs with the same shape (it exploded, he tripped); but not always (he died, but not *he killed -- at least not in the same sense as he died).

Wanting, of course, causes nothing to happen by itself, though it can serve as a motivation. As Barrie says, it's a mental state verb, very close to the deontic sense of the modal verb will (in German the modal verb wollen straightforwardly means 'to want').

  • 2
    I can see why the question was asked. “It left him dead. It made him explode. It made him trip. It made me sick. I want him dead. I wish him ill. They wanted me dead. They wished me dead.” There is a similarly in structure there in all of those. But desire alone is not actual effect, of course, and you are right.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 0:04
  • Thanks, John. I was hoping you'd share your opinion on this. Yes, I suppose "let" with the meaning of to give permission also qualifies for "cause S to be true."
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 4:09
  • No, it means "allow S to be true"; unless one has great power, merely permitting something does not cause it to happen. Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 4:15
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    The Christian God has great power, so when he says "Let there be light", that's certainly causative. But even lowly Basic programmers (imho the lowliest of programmers :) can say "let a = 1", and it will be so. Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 1:22
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    Under those circumstances, of course. Though I doubt that the Christian God used let; the original Hebrew was Va-yomer Elohim yehi-or va-yehi-or, which means 'and-said God thereis-light and-thereis-light', roughly translated. Yehi is either a jussive or an imperfect form for the verb that means "exist". Commented Jul 16, 2012 at 1:53

As you have probably seen, the LSGSWE describes want as a mental verb. That seems as good a classification as any.

  • Thanks, Barrie. By a mental verb, do you mean stative? Yes, I've seen it classified as such, by Murphy
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 3:57
  • @Cool Elf: Page 163 of LSGSWE shows ‘want’ as being among those verbs that occur less than 2 per cent of the time in the progressive aspect. To that extent, it can be said to behave like some stative verbs. I say ‘some’, because on the same page LSGSWE points out that the stative verb ‘look forward to’ occurs typically in the progressive aspect. Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 6:49
  • Thanks. I've known as much about mental verbs and Progressive forms. I just got confused by one line on the Net: "...what we often call causative verbs are not so much to do with causing something, but rather verbs which follow a certain pattern." I guess some learners and teachers are indeed doing this for the sake of convenience (ex. let)
    – Cool Elf
    Commented Jul 15, 2012 at 7:49

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