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Make Mine Factitive

Of the many mean tricks I pulled on my children, a particular favorite (of mine, not theirs) took place when they popped into the kitchen and said, “Mommy, make me an ice-cream sundae!”

“Poof!” I would say, wiggling my fingers. “You’re an ice-cream sundae!”

The joke relies on one of those slippery English-language phenomena, wherein the same syntax can have two different grammatical structures and hence two meanings. My children wish me to create (transitive verb) a sundae (direct object) for them (indirect object). I offer to make (factitive verb) them (direct object) a sundae (objective complement).

The factitive verb, for language fanatics, is a gas. The root of the term is the Latin facere, to make or do. Anything that makes something something is factitive, and the making can be as concrete as hammer and nails or as ephemeral as a thought. I can, for instance, consider the dean an idiot, and poof! Grammatically, at least, he’s an idiot. I can make my home a castle; we can elect Senator X president. Moving on to adjectives as complements, I can make you beautiful; I can judge my students wanting. I can even make something something by using an infinitive: I made him stay home.

More on that last sentence in a second—but first I’d like to return to Fiddler on the Roof, which one commenter mentioned following my post on the subjunctive. Tevye’s daughters’ opening song, “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” plays on the factitive verb’s double entendre in a memorable way. “Make me a match,” the girls beg, in much the same way that my kids would beg for a sundae. To confirm their meaning, they sing, “Find me a find, catch me a catch”—in other words, find or catch something for me. But in the next verse, they sing, “For Papa, make him a scholar; for Mama, make him rich as a king”—and here, the “make” is factitive. “Poof!” they seem to want to say, “He’s a scholar!”

Underlying this shift in the function of “make” is a subtle meaning for the girls themselves. Their opening pleas, “Make me a match,” seems now to be asking not only for good men, but also for the girls to be made, themselves, into good matches—to be matched.

The syntax gets even more slippery when we apply the infinitive, as I did above. Even one of my grammar gurus, Eugene Moutoux, calls the infinitive following a possibly factitive verb a “gray area” of grammar. He writes, “In the sentence ‘See Spot run,’ what is being seen is Spot’s running, which might argue for Spot run as a subject with infinitive. It’s not really Spot that is the primary focus of the seeing but Spot’s running. The same thing can be said for ‘Let us go.’ It’s not so much we who are being permitted, but our going is being permitted. In other words, us doesn’t seem as much like a direct object as the subject of an infinitive phrase. Now, with the sentence ‘We made him stay home,’ it doesn’t seem like we are forcing his staying home but that we are forcing him. This would argue for calling him in this sentence a direct object.”

Does any of this parsing make a difference, in terms of correct syntax or acceptable style? No. If I write a hard-boiled western in which Sheriff Jones says to One-Eyed Sam, “I’ll see you hang,” the reader is welcome to consider whether Jones’s mental image is of a transformation—Sam with his six-shooters being made into Sam hanging—or merely of Sam’s dangling from a rope. But even when it doesn’t “matter,” language can be fun to contemplate. I, for one, enjoy contemplating the ways in which certain verbs entail metamorphosis, if only for a moment of suspended disbelief. For those who object to this way of thinking about verbs—well, I guess I am making myself toast.

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