The Grammarphobia Blog

Making sense

Q: Your posting about “make sure” has a raised a question in my mind. We seem to use “make” differently. We can say, “I made sure my students thought about that.” But we have to say, “I made my students think about that.” Why is it that we can use “thought” in the first example, but we have to use “think” in the second?

A: The verb “make” and the verbal phrase “make sure” illustrate two different grammatical constructions.

When used in this sense, “make sure” can be followed by verbs in any form, but “make” alone is always followed by a verb in the infinitive.

This explains why your second sentence has the past tense of “make” followed by an object (“my students”) plus an infinitive (“think”).

The Oxford English Dictionary says the verb “make” here means “to cause (a person or thing) to do something.”

This use of “make,” as the OED notes, is seen in such familiar constructions as “don’t make me laugh,” “to make (one’s) mouth water,” and “to make (one) think.”

When “make” is used this way, the second verb remains in the infinitive, even when “make” shifts from tense to tense: “we made them think” … “we will make them think” … “we would have made them think,” and so on.

That’s why you never see a construction like “we made them thought.” And that’s why this use of “make” is grammatically different from “make sure,” which doesn’t lock in the form or tense of the verb (or verbs) that follow.

In your first sentence, the verbal phrase “made sure” is followed by a clause: “my students thought about that.”

As the OED says, this sense of “make sure” means “to make something certain as a fact … to preclude risk of error; to ascertain,” and it can be followed either by a clause or by “of.”

But unlike the use of “make” we described above, “make sure” can be followed by verbs in any tense. The form isn’t set in stone.

There are many possible constructions: “I make sure my students think about that” … “I’ll make sure my students will think about that”… “I made sure my students would think about that” … and so on.

The verb “make,” meaning to construct something, first showed up in early Old English in the writings of Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although the OED has several Old English citations, John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says “make” wasn’t a particularly common verb in Anglo-Saxon times.

Ayto writes that gewyrcan, the Old English ancestor of the modern word “work,” was “the most usual way of expressing the notion ‘make.’ ”

It wasn’t until the Middle English period (from the late 12th to the late 15th centuries) that the use of “make” became common, according to the Dictionary of Word Origins.

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