How to respond to this situation?

  • A friend asks you what makes him good at speaking a foreign language.

I want to ask about the meaning of "what makes him good"

does it mean that

  1. He's good at speaking a foreign language and he wants to know why OR
  2. He asks about how to be good at speaking a foreign language?

Thanks a lot ..

  • Both can be correct, if we don't take the nitpicky's way to the answer! :) Look at them. If in #1 the first "he" is "the person fluent in English" and the second "a friend"; then both have approximately the same meaning. However, I sense the first is closer to the answer.
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 18, 2015 at 18:54
  • Wait a sec. "A friend asks you what makes him good at speaking a foreign language." Is "him" the friend that's good at speaking English already?
    – M.A.R.
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:00
  • thanks but what's the direct form for this sentence?
    – user37421
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:04
  • @user37421 I am not sure I understand your scenario. Are you saying a native speaker said something like "What makes me good at speaking French?"
    – Adam
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:25
  • @Adam No it's a question in my homework it's indirect speech so is there different meaning possibilities?
    – user37421
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:32

2 Answers 2


Option 1.

To understand why, start with this common construction with the word "make":

Make my hair shiny.

"Make object complement" means to cause object to have the property named by complement. The subject is the person or thing that causes object to acquire that property:

This shampoo will make your hair shiny.

Since this is in the future tense, it means that the shampoo will cause your hair to become shiny.

You can use the same construction in the present tense to explain why an object has some property:

"What makes your hair so shiny?"

"This shampoo makes it shiny."

If your hair wasn't already shiny, then the question wouldn't make sense. "What makes object complement?" asks what is the cause of the object's already having the property named by the complement.


"What makes Amir good at speaking English?"

"I don't know for sure. Maybe it's because he memorizes a lot of nursery rhymes."

The object is Amir and the complement is good at speaking English.

Seriously, Amir is good at speaking English because he has practiced a lot. :)

You can also use the same construction with "make" to ask how an object that doesn't have the complement yet could acquire it. You just add a modal verb to "make", like this:

What will make my hair shiny?

What would make my hair shiny?

What can make my hair shiny?

What could make my hair shiny?

What might make my hair shiny?

These all mean approximately the same thing, with only subtle differences. The versions with "would", "could", and "might" are ambiguous: they can also ask what causes the hair's shininess right now (instead of asking how the hair could become shiny). To be fully clear, you can add another verb to reinforce your intended meaning:

What would make Amir become good at speaking English?

What could make Amir get good at speaking English?

What will make Amir get good at speaking English?

...and many other variations.

However, note that the "make" construction suggests a simple, rather forceful kind of causation, like making hair shiny or making your car run faster. The wording above suggests that maybe you are looking for some kind of threat or incentive to make Amir practice more. If you want to ask for a method or an action, "how" fits your meaning better:

How did Amir get good at speaking English? [This assumes that Amir is already good at speaking English.]

How could Amir get good at speaking English? [This assumes that Amir is not currently good at speaking English.]

  • Thanks but can I say that the second option in this exact sentence is totally rejected?
    – user37421
    Feb 18, 2015 at 20:11
  • @user37421 Yes. The present-tense "makes" means that the friend is assumed to already be good at English. Something now explains why the friend is good at English.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 18, 2015 at 20:27
  • @user37421 By the way, even if you like my answer best (I'm honored, of course), please wait a day or two before accepting it. That will allow other people some time to write an answer, which might say something useful that I missed, or might correct an error in my answer. More information about why it's helpful to wait a day or two is here.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Feb 18, 2015 at 20:29

Option 2. What makes him good means what he need to do to improve or how to be good.

  • 5
    Welcome to ELL, Neel. I think your answer would be more helpful if you explained a bit more why you interpret "what makes him good" as asking what he should improve. I understand the phrase to mean "what qualities do you think I have that cause me to do this well?" so I'm interested in why you think it means something different.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 18, 2015 at 19:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .