The Causative: French Grammar for Getting Yourself into Trouble
As a French king, Louis XVI had a lot of people do his bidding, but it got him into trouble. Eventually, though, he got himself into trouble and was guillotined.
How would you write about that in French?
This is where the causative and the verb faire (to do or to make), its #1 champion, come in.
With the causative, faire can be used to smoothly translate English phrases such as “I’m getting the house painted” or “I’m making him learn French.”
- What Exactly Is the Causative?
- Forming the Causative
- 5 Times You’ll Want to Use the Causative
What Exactly Is the Causative?
The causative…shows cause.
Usually, the subject of a sentence performs or does an action (figuratively or literally):
Je parle français. (I speak French.)
The “I” is doing the talking here.
With the causative, however, the subject is causing the verb to happen, not acting it out themselves:
Le prof fait parler les élèves en français. (The teacher makes the students speak French.)
The teacher isn’t speaking French himself (though he’s probably doing that as well, if he’s a good French teacher). He’s making someone else do it.
The above may look a little funny to you, but don’t you worry, we’ll break this all down step by step.
Keep in mind that the causative is the language of French kings: They frequently had others do their bidding.
Forming the Causative
The causative has four (and sometimes five) components:
- The subject, whether that’s a pronoun, noun or proper noun.
- Faire conjugated to whatever tense you need for the situation.
- The infinitive of the verb that’s being caused.
- The agent (the person or thing being made to act) and/or the receiver (the person or thing being acted upon).
Those last two may look a little easy to trip up on, so let’s break these components down in some examples. Since I put in that little “and/or,” you probably guessed that there’s more than one way to form the causative. I promise this is still simple, but we’ll do separate examples for agent-only, receiver-only and agent and receiver together.
- Agent-only causative
This one is used when you’re using the causative to describe someone who is made to do something by the subject.
Je fais danser mon ami. (I’m making my friend dance.)
So we’ve got our 1, 2 and 3: the subject, conjugated faire and the infinitive.
Then, since mon ami is the thing that’s being made to act (dancing in this situation…my poor friend), that makes them an agent.
Notice that the agent is located after both verbs, whereas in English we would say “I’m making my friend dance,” with “friend” coming after the verb “to make” and before the verb “to dance.”
So even though the wording may seem funky, remember to keep your faire and infinitive close and comfy.
- Receiver-only causative
We use this form of the causative when the subject is making something happen to something or someone, rather than making someone or something do something.
Il fait détruire les preuves. (He’s having the evidence destroyed.)
Again, same thing as with agent-only causative: subject, faire and infinitive. But this time, the subject is having “the proof” (the receiver) destroyed.
You may have had that instinct to translate the phrase to “He’s destroying the evidence,” which would be Il détruit les preuves. But “he” isn’t the one doing the destroying, he’s only causing it to happen (hence why we’re using the causative).
Just think: With the causative, the subject is never really getting their hands dirty. The causative is for when you’re feeling passive, lazy or just plain bossy.
- Agent and receiver causative
Here’s a double whammy for you! If the subject is having the agent do something to a receiver, then you need both.
Je fais comprendre le causatif aux lecteurs. (I’m making the readers understand the causative.)
Well, technically you’re making yourself, but we’ll get to the reflexive in a moment. Here, since we have an agent and a receiver, there are a few things that you need to know (these rules apply only if you aren’t using indirect object pronouns, but more on that later):
- The agent and receiver still go after the subject, faire and the infinitive.
- The agent always goes after the receiver.
- You need a preposition, either à or par, to include the agent in this construction. This is only when there are both an agent and a receiver, and can help distinguish between the two when both the agent and receiver are people, as in Maman fait jouer Sam à Sally (Mom is making Sally play with Sam). But make sure you don’t use a preposition when you’re doing agent-only!
Resist the urge to construct this like the English translation, paying close attention to the order of—one more time—subject, faire, infinitive, receiver, agent.
You can exhale now. Once you understand that part, the rest is cake.
If you’re having trouble remembering the difference between the agent and the receiver, think of it this way: If you worked for a secret government organization, you would make an agent go do your bidding. And if you’re making this agent send a package to the enemy, then isn’t the enemy receiving the package, making him the receiver?
Although knowing these components by name isn’t vital once you’ve got the causative down, while you’re still getting comfy, you’ll want to be able to identify them in a sentence to make sure you’ve got it right.
You should be mildly comfortable with reflexive verbs and pronouns if you’re a fancy advanced French pro. Using the causative with the reflexive form se faire can be useful for everyday conversation.
If you’re one of those (like many of us) who have ongoing issues with all things reflexive, then tackle the following headfirst and maybe you’ll make the final breakthrough you need.
If the causative describes something someone else has to do, that means the reflexive causative is used to describe what you’re having done to yourself, or what others are having done to themselves.
Getting yourself into trouble, essentially.
Here are some examples of ways to use it:
Je me fais faire une manicure. (I’m getting myself a manicure.)
Don’t be turned off by the double faire here. It looks weird, but it’s correct!
Il se fait cuisiner son dîner chaque soir. (He has his dinner cooked for him each night.)
S’est-elle fait acheter le chien ? (Did she have the dog bought for her?)
This is the perfect tense if you didn’t catch it, just to show you that the causative (reflexive or not) can work with any tense!
The key is to not overthink it. If you’re trying to translate the reflexive causative directly to English, then you’re only causing yourself trouble.
Just take my word for it: It really is as simple as the causative plus the reflexive pronoun in order to talk about things the subject has done to themselves.
Using the causative with object pronouns
Yes, there are a few sticky situations you can get yourself into with the causative and object pronouns. Luckily, there are only a few major points you need to remember in order to make such sentences perfect!
- How to direct your direct objects
Since you either have an agent or a receiver with the causative, you always have a direct object!
We’ve constructed the causative when all nouns are present, but what if you want to replace one of them with a direct object pronoun in order to simplify your speech?
There’s really only one big thing you need to remember in order to do this correctly: The direct object pronoun goes before faire. You’re probably already familiar with some of the rules surrounding compound tenses, so just think of the causative similarly. In both cases, you need the direct object pronoun placed in front of the conjugated verb: faire in this case.
If you need a refresher, your direct object pronouns are le, la and les.
Let’s look at an example.
Je fais lire mes élèves. (I’m making my students read.)
Je les fais lire. (I’m making them read.)
- Doubling the fun with direct and indirect objects
So backtracking to the causative with an agent and receiver…it can get slightly trickier when it comes to throwing pronouns into the mix. Of course, if you wanted to just change the agent, then you’d follow the rule above:
Je fais sortir la poubelle par mon fils. (I’m making my son take out the trash.)
Je la fais sortir par mon fils. (I’m making my son take it out.)
If you’re replacing the receiver in a receiver-only causative construction it would be replaced by a direct object, but in an agent and receiver situation, it would be replaced by an indirect object.
If you’ve studied these before, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since indirect object pronouns are used when prepositions are present. In the example above, since there is a par in front of mon fils, then you’d need to get your indirect object game going and get lui or leur out.
Je lui fais sortir la poubelle. (I’m making him take out the trash.)
And if you wanted to replace both nouns to make things super vague, then you’d just combine the last two examples:
Je la lui fais sortir. (I’m making him take it out.)
For this specific purpose, you only need to know that direct object pronouns go before indirect object pronouns, and you’re all set to do your replacing!
- Agreeing to not agree
If you’re a real French smartypants, you’re probably musing over direct object agreement. The causative is like a compound tense, isn’t it? Well, sort of. And in compound tenses you need to make gender agreements with your direct object pronoun, but lucky for you, you don’t need to in the causative!
So this part is simple: Don’t agree your direct object pronouns.
And without further ado, you now know everything you need to know to use the causative properly.
So now let’s establish when you’ll want to use it.
5 Times You’ll Want to Use the Causative
There are five common ways to use the causative, ranging from some of the examples we’ve already seen to new territory that should expand on your current French grammar knowledge!
1. When you want to express “making”
We’ve been using this word a lot, and with good reason. If you want to translate any English phrase that looks something like “I’m making someone do something,” or “someone is making someone else do something,” or if we’d actually replace all of those something-or-others with real nouns, then you need the causative.
Here’s an example:
Je fais partir l’homme. (I’m making the man leave.)
This is best used when someone is being forced to do something (though “making” has a milder connotation, luckily). So simply plug in any verb that you’ve just gotta have done by your minions.
2. When you want to express “having/getting done”
You may have avoided getting your nails done in France (manicures aren’t all that popular anyway) because you had no idea how to say you were getting your nails done.
Here are a few things people usually “have done” that require the causative:
Il fait peindre la maison. (He’s having the house painted.)
Elle fait réparer la voiture. (She’s having the car fixed.)
Je me fais couper les cheveux. (I’m getting my hair cut.)
3. When you want to express “feeding”
This may seem really simple upon first glance, but think about it, do you really know an eloquent way to say “I fed the dog” in French? Probably not. The verb nourrir means to feed, but a better way to say it would be with faire + manger in the causative formation. This translates to “making to eat,” but is used commonly as “to feed,” which are two definitions that, if you think about it, aren’t that far off from one another. However, don’t confuse faire manger with faire à manger (to get a meal ready).
Here are some examples:
J’ai fait manger la mousse de canard aux invités. (I fed duck mousse to my guests.)
Il fait manger les légumes à sa fille. (He’s feeding vegetables to his daughter.)
4. When you want to express “show”
Hey! We know this verb already. Montrer, right? Well, yeah. But there’s sometimes more than one way to say things. And if you want a more everyday French way to tell someone to “show” you, faire + voir works. This isn’t the normal causative; it’s a special construction. It’s the only time you don’t use an agent or a receiver.
Use it in the imperative, like so:
Tu as un nouvel chien ? Fais voir ! (You have a new dog? Show me!)
Fais voir ton reçu. (Show me your receipt.)
5. When you want to describe passive events
When using the reflexive causative, you can describe passive events, or things that unintentionally happen.
This is particularly useful when describing morbid events:
Il s’est fait tuer par un ours. (He was killed by a bear.)
Congratulations! You’re now officially a step closer to being fluent.
Grammatical constructions like the causative may seem extraneous at first, but you’ll probably be surprised to find that certain phrases come to you easier now, and that your comprehension has increased.
Aside from knowing about the rules, you can absorb them more naturally by going through more example sentences. You’ll need to get familiar with deconstructing sentences word for word, so that you know the grammatical workings behind them.
Besides the standard grammar textbooks, you can also go for authentic French media to see grammar in action. Try pulling out a French book or watching a French movie and study the verbs and pronouns by line. Note uses of the causative and focus on how the verbs influence the words before and after it. Have a notebook and dictionary close by for help.
There are also language learning programs that teach French grammar in context. With their tools, they can help you deconstruct French phrases more precisely. FluentU, for example, has authentic French videos equipped with interactive subtitles that provide word definitions, grammar details and example usages. Each clip also has exercises that let you practice constructing phrases with the words you learn.
The bottom line is that when you come across a French construction that seems a little nitpicky, you should make yourself learn it!