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In an imaginary situation where John is 200 cm tall and Bob 190 cm. Bob is still tall but at the side of John, he looks short.

Why is "John makes Bob looks short." wrong? "Bob looks short." and "Bob looks short at the side of John" are right, right?

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  • 4
    ...note that Bob looks short at the side of John is not idiomatic. But you could certainly say Bob looks short beside / next to / alongside John. Also note that plain Bob looks short without an explicit contrast to John is a bit weird, regardless of his actual height. Dec 2, 2023 at 11:52
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    It was always the infinitive after to make, but centuries ago the infinitive marker was included - Psalm 23:2 KJV: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. Dec 2, 2023 at 17:50
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    Indeed, not a typo in this case, but a mistake. :-) That's exactly the problem with your sentence, that "s".
    – Gábor
    Dec 2, 2023 at 20:21
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    Okay, well I've retracted my closevote. We've had a lot of questions about this specific usage point (You make John do it, You hope John does it, Bob makes John do it, Bob hopes John does it), so in principle it's almost certainly a duplicate. But you've got two perfectly good answers here, so it may as well stand. Dec 2, 2023 at 20:28
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    @Lambie: I'm perfectly happy with the answer from Seowjooheng Singapore. If you're not, why don't you post an answer instead of constantly hassling me? Dec 4, 2023 at 18:15

4 Answers 4

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*John makes Bob looks short.

make is a causative verb. langeek explains:

The structure of making this type of causative is as follows: Subject + Causative Verb + Object + non-finite clause

A non-finite clause can be formed using these structures: Bare infinitive clause: a causative verb is followed by an object and then a bare infinitive. My mom made me clean (bare infinitive) my room.

In our case, it should be

John makes Bob look short.

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  • But as I note in my answer, there are causatives, like force and even cause, that do not allow the bare infinitive: The added weight caused the shelf to sag. Dec 5, 2023 at 12:33
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The expression make someone V takes the unmarked infinitive form of the verb. It is similar to many others: compare

  • John makes his son do his homework.
  • John watches his son play baseball.
  • John helps his son fly a kite.
  • John hears his son enter the room.

Others require the marked (to form of the) infinitive:

  • John tells his son to close the door.
  • John wants his son to succeed in life.
  • John asks his son to wash his hands.
  • John expects his son to follow him into the family business.
  • John forces his son to apologize to the neighbor.

(Note that in this last one, force is, like make a causative, but an utterance like *John forces his son apologize does not work.)

Of course, there are also lots of verbs that take conjugated forms:

  • John hopes his son does well.
  • John thinks his son likes broccoli.
  • John knows his son has allergies.
  • John fears his son is at risk.
  • John imagines his son is happy.

(Note that all of these involve mental states or acts in which John is engaging. But not all verbs describing mental states take the conjugated form: consider the expects example above.)

And in case all of that isn’t confusing enough, helps can also take the to form. Thus, John helps his son to fly a kite has the same meaning. And then there’s John assists his son in studying for the exam.

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  • Alternatively: John likes his son behaving. John watches his son playing.
    – Bizhan
    Dec 4, 2023 at 10:41
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    It might be useful to note that your last group of examples all feature a "dropped that": "John hopes [that] his son does well", "John thinks [that] his son likes broccoli", etc. Dec 4, 2023 at 11:54
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    It’s true, @IlmariKaronen, that they do. And another, essentially identical, point is that the complement of those verbs is a syntactically complete sentence. But those facts wouldn’t help a learner figure out which class any verb fit in. For instance, whether taught would take unmarked infinitive, to form, or conjugated form. Dec 4, 2023 at 12:49
  • make, let, get etc. are causative verbs.
    – Lambie
    Dec 4, 2023 at 18:02
  • @PaulTanenbaum: It's true that those points won't reveal to a learner which class each verb belongs to. But they can help a learner fit the ways that different verbs work into a framework that makes sense. And in my experience as a learner, that is very helpful.
    – LarsH
    Dec 5, 2023 at 10:36
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I am not at all a linguist, but I am bilingual (a native speaker of English who learned Spanish in their 20s), and I suspect that the easiest explanation to understand for speakers of other European languages who want to learn English is as follows:

Most people think of English verbs as lacking many of the grammatical tenses, moods, and voices that are found in most Romance and Germanic languages. However, this has not always been the case, and Old English had most of the hallmarks of verb/noun inflection that we think of for modern European languages, such as declension of nouns, grammatical gender, etc. In fact, there are some echos of this that found their ways into Modern English. Early Modern English preserved a distinction between formal and informal second-person pronouns and a richer conjugation of verbs (see, for instance, the King James Bible).

In this case, I suspect that we are looking at one the last vestiges of the subjunctive mood in English. It has almost disappeared, but a distinction between the declarative and the subjunctive mood still exists for third-person singular subjects. For regular verbs, instead of adding an "s" to the end of the infinitive, as you would for third-person singular in the declarative mood, you leave the bare infinitive of the verb unchanged (which is the same inflection as for third-person plural declarative).

Suppose, for instance, that I want to warn you that you need to get to work on time. In Spanish, we would say "es importante que seas puntual" and not "es importante que eres puntual", in English we say "it's important that you be punctual" instead of "it's important that you are punctual".

The subjunctive mood also seems to have a similar usage in English as in Romance languages; you use it to express a normative judgement (e.g., "good", "bad", "important", etc.). For causative verbs, where you are hoping/forcing/wanting/causing/asking/etc. someone to do something, there is a lot of variability: some of these verbs (such as "make") make the verb in the following clause take the subjunctive mood in this case (or at least are inflected the same as if they were in the subjunctive mood), while others cause it to take the declarative mood (such as "hope") and still others require you to use the full infinitive in the following clause (such as "ask", "require", etc.). I have noticed the same variability in Spanish (where some of these verbs make the following clause have declarative or subjunctive mood or use the infinitive).

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Very simple said: there may only be one 's' in this example:

  • Bob looks short
  • John makes Bob look short
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  • Can you explain why, please? This is an easy way to think about it for native speakers, perhaps, but on ELL, it's probably better to give some deeper explanation.
    – CDR
    Dec 4, 2023 at 13:39
  • Only one of the persons does something here. In the first sentence it is Bob, in the second sentence it is John.
    – Spider IT
    Dec 4, 2023 at 14:33

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