Causing Trouble

Some of the most common words in English are often used to build sentences of quite some grammatical sophistication, and it can only help us as close readers, writers, and thinkers to understand how those sentences work. Take, for example, the very common verb get. See if you can explain to yourself just what meaning that verb carries in this sentence: The contractor says that he will get those trees taken down to make room for the new addition.

Our first move might be simply to find a synonym: get those trees taken down means have those trees taken down. No one could disagree with that, but we’ve just moved laterally, so to speak, not forward in understanding the logical import of the statement. Beneath the meaning is the grammatical structure, so let’s begin, as always, with understanding the form of the puzzle before us. The independent clause of the sentence is the contractor says, and since that verb is transitive, the balance of the statement, from that to the period, represents its direct object. Now we have the large frame of the sentence.

Let’s keep our eye, next, on the subordinate clause and see that its subject is he. So far so good, but now the grammatical forest grows dark and dense, and we have to proceed carefully in finding just what words constitute the verb. The subject, he, is doing something, but if we too simply and quickly conclude that get is the main verb, we find ourselves saying that the phrase those trees is its direct object. That, however, would make the subordinate clause mean that the subject he will obtain or bring the trees, and that’s contrary to what we understand when we read the sentence again: the contractor doesn’t want the trees, he wants them gone.

So if in this sentence the word get does not mean obtain or bring, two very common definitions of that verb, just what does it mean here? Once again we turn to form. If we look more closely at the verb get and now read past what at first sight appeared to be its direct object (those trees), we find another verb, taken down. That means that the complete verb phrase we’re looking for is will get taken down. Verb phrases are groups of verbs which together form one construction, and the master rule in analyzing a verb phrase is to work backwards. The last verb in a verb phrase is called the principal verb, and the principal verb (sometimes also called the notional verb) tells the reader the idea (the notion) we’re really talking about: the contractor wants to remove some trees (as opposed to planting or trimming or buying some trees). All the other verbs in a verb phrase, which will stand before the principal verb, are called auxiliary verbs, and each auxiliary verb has a specific function.

Continuing to work backwards in the verb phrase, then, we come next to the auxiliary get and finally to will. This last auxiliary simply serves to build the future tense, and that leaves us with understanding just what auxiliary function the verb get is carrying out. When the verb get is used like this as an auxiliary, it takes on the meaning of causing something to happen. Verbs that do this are called, appropriately, causative verbs, and we see the same function in statements like he made me do it, or I made him return it, where the causative verbs made, like the causative get in our example, stand as auxiliaries to the principal verbs (do and return) of their clauses.

The only twist which the construction will get taken down presents is that the principal verb, taken down, is a passive infinitive, with the usual passive phrase to be left unstated. We would expect to see will get to be taken down, but for reasons unknown to all but an historical linguist, we regularly do not express the to be phrase in causative constructions with the verb get­­—yet another cause for trouble.

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Scheduling Note

This coming Thursday, December 6, will be the last of my twice-weekly postings. Please look for my short pieces about grammar and writing once each week now, every Tuesday morning, and also please remember that I offer private online instruction in English grammar, composition, and conversation. You may reach me for more information at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. Thank you.

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  1. rultimo

1 Comment

  1. On a too busy night, I got (sic) drawn in and read further, deeper, then encountered insightful phrases such as “form of the puzzle” and a “grammatical forest grows dark and dense” until I came upon the “master rule.”

    Light at the end of the tunnel. Can I hear an Amen! (as translated in the Koine Greek Bible “verily, verily, I say unto you.”)

    Upon further reading I encountered causation, whereupon I reached root cause, and clarity. A wonderful pithy exegesis. No surprise.

    On this 6 December, the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus comes to mind. Of all his writings, only one fragment survives, which literally means “all things flux”, but generally is translated as “all things change.” Tis ever true.

    Thank you for your missives. Keep them coming, on whatever schedule fits.

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