The verb MAKE has a wide range of meanings and grammatical uses
THE PROBLEM PRESENTED BY make
Small verbs like MAKE are difficult to master in any new language because they tend to have many different uses and meanings, many of them idiomatic (hard to guess). Dictionaries are useful for discovering the possibilities, but they tend to present them as lists without the commentary that can add interest and assist memorisation.
It is this kind of commentary that I am attempting to provide here. I am focussing on MAKE because it is especially variable in both its grammar and its meaning. It is the third small verb to be given a whole Guinlist post to itself, after HAVE (see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE) and BE (119. BE Before a “to” Verb). A few other verbs receive quite detailed treatment in the post 129. Differences between Necessity Verbs.
FUNDAMENTAL MEANINGS (make + NOUN)
MAKE is normally a transitive verb, which means that it has to combine with an object noun or noun equivalent (for details of objects, see 8. Object-Dropping Errors). In the most basic use, MAKE will have just an object, and that will express a concrete idea, such as cars, lunch, a fire, a heap or a photocopy. The meaning of MAKE will then be something like “produce by processing ingredients”. Usually the processing will involve combining, but it could also be the opposite, as in make hydrogen (from water).
The main problem with this definition seems to be the existence of some objects that look as if they ought to combine with MAKE but do not. For example, buildings (and their components, e.g. walls) are not usually made but built or constructed. There seems no logical reason for this beyond mere custom. Other examples are pictures and photographs, which respectively need DRAW (or PAINT) and TAKE. Some other objects, moreover, allow a choice between MAKE and another verb: meals can be prepared, beer can be brewed and cars can be manufactured.
Books also has two verbs – MAKE and WRITE – but their meanings differ: one is a physical activity with paper and glue, the other a mental one. Also notable is make a bed, where MAKE could mean either “construct” or “tidy”.
Similar to the basic use is MAKE with nouns of a more abstract kind. Many of these are derived from verbs of saying or thinking (i.e. they are a sub-category of “action” nouns – see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). MAKE seems preferred to DO despite the fact that the nouns sometimes seem to mean an action rather than a product (see 14. Action Outcomes). Examples are an analysis*, an (academic) argument*, an assertion, an assessment*, a claim, a comment, a comparison, a complaint, a connection, a contrast, a decision, an enquiry, an excuse, a fuss, a judgement*, a list*, a note, an observation, an offer, a promise, a remark, a request, a speech*, a statement, a threat and an utterance.
Nouns of this kind are often an alternative to the -ing form of the related verb (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). However, -ing forms normally have DO instead of MAKE (e.g. do some arguing). The nouns marked * in the list sometimes have GIVE instead of MAKE, suggesting communication of something made earlier. Threat also has an alternative: POSE when it means simply being a threat rather than communicating one. Note also that a plan can have FORM as well as MAKE, and a list DRAW UP.
Some nouns of saying/thinking cannot have MAKE at all: GIVE is a common alternative, being needed especially with nouns expressing essay purposes (see 94. Essay Instruction Words), such as an account, a definition, a description, an explanation, an outline, a shout). Also found are EXPRESS (a belief, an idea, an opinion, a view), HAVE (a quarrel/argument, a discussion) and TAKE (heed, note). For more examples, see 39. “Decide” or “Make a Decision”? and 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE.
With other action nouns, MAKE is again common. Examples (with alternative verbs in brackets) are an attempt, a connection, a discovery, an examination (CARRY OUT), a fuss, haste, an impression, a leap, a mistake, progress, a recovery, a start and a survey (DO). Exceptions include research and investigation (both CARRY OUT or CONDUCT, though research also allows DO) and various nouns that require HAVE (an encounter, an experience, a try – see 116. Rarer Uses of HAVE).
MAKE also accompanies many abstract nouns that do not express actions. These include non-spoken sounds – a bang (GIVE), music, a noise, a sound, a squeak (GIVE) – and financial nouns like a fortune, a loss, money and a profit. There is an informal use before particular sums of money which means “earn”. Other common objects are a difference, an effort, a face (= an expression), friends, history, love, peace, a point, time and trouble (CAUSE). Note that MAKE or CAUSE trouble suggests intention, while GIVE does not.
OTHER MEANINGS OF make + NOUN
1. MAKE = “manage to reach”
This meaning often accompanies the + form of transport, such as the train or the flight. A famous example is in a song by The Beatles: … made the bus in seconds flat (= “very rapidly reached the bus before it moved away”). Sports targets like the team and the final are another common type of object. One also hears make the (news)papers.
A related use is make it to (= complete the journey to), e.g. made it to Paris/the summit.
2. MAKE Used like BE
In the examples above, MAKE is always used with an object. It can also be used with a noun that is not an object (i.e. a “complement”), changing the meaning noticeably. Consider this:
(a) Dogs make good servants.
Good servants here is the same as dogs, not something separately created by them. Make thus resembles are, its exact meaning being something like “are capable of becoming”.
MAKE can also resemble “equals”. Before it must be one or more part names, after it their product, like this:
(b) Eleven players make a football team.
OTHER STRUCTURES WITH make
MAKE is used with various other types of partner besides a simple following noun.
1. MAKE + Noun + Verb
An example of this use is:
(c) Warmth and rain make grass grow rapidly.
Make here means “cause” (see 32. Expressing Consequences). The noun after it is grass, while grow is the verb. Grow is an infinitive verb without to (see 148. Infinitive Verbs without “to”). Adding to to a verb after MAKE is a very common grammar error (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar 1).
With human objects, MAKE is likely to mean “force” rather than “cause”. For more on this meaning, see 65. Verbs that Mean “Must” or “Can”.
2. MAKE + Noun + Noun (1)
In this use, the object of MAKE is the second of the two following nouns, while the first expresses a beneficiary of the making, like this:
(d) Currency trading can make banks a fortune.
If the two underlined nouns here are reversed, banks is shown not to be the true object by the fact that for has to be added before it. In traditional grammar, it would be called an “indirect” object. MAKE here means something like “give”. More on indirect objects and the verbs that accompany them is in the Guinlist post 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object.
3. MAKE + Noun + Noun (2)
This use may be illustrated as follows:
(e) Currency trading can make banks economic giants.
The difference between this and (d) is that it says what banks can become, not what they can have. In other words, MAKE is more like “cause to be” than “give”. In grammatical terms, banks is the object of make and economic giants is an “object complement”. In this case the object complement of MAKE is basically a noun (giants), but it could, like all complements, also be an adjective, e.g. rich. Note that to be is not possible between an object of MAKE and its object complement (see 92. Complement-Showing “As” and 140. Words with Unexpected Grammar 2, question [h]).
4. MAKE + Noun + Preposition + Noun
When a preposition follows MAKE + object, sometimes it is part of the verb, making the whole combination a “prepositional verb” (see 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun). One common example is MAKE … INTO, MAKE meaning “change”. An example is:
(f) Yeast will make fruit juice into wine.
This use is very similar to that in (e) above, where there is no preposition before the second noun. The difference is perhaps that into shows a more complete kind of change: wine is not still fruit juice. In (e), banks that become economic giants are still banks.
Another common preposition is of. In one use, MAKE means “create”, producing sentences like (e) with the positions of the two nouns reversed (… make economic giants of banks). In another use, MAKE is followed by a quantity noun (or pronoun) and means “judge” (… made much/nothing of events). Sometimes a particular object noun after MAKE combines with a particular preposition. Examples are make amends for, make fun of and make an example of (see 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun).
5. MAKE in Phrasal Verbs
A phrasal verb is a simple verb closely combined with a preposition-like adverb to express a single meaning (see 139. Phrasal Verbs). In many cases there is a more formal one-word equivalent (see 108. Formal and Informal Words). One phrasal verb with MAKE is MAKE OUT, which can mean “succeed” or “understand” (+ object) or “falsely claim” (+ that …). Others are MAKE UP (= “end a quarrel” or “compose a falsehood” [+ object] or “facially decorate”) and MAKE OFF WITH (“steal and carry away”).
6. Other Idiomatic Phrases
To make do is to manage with less than the best and to make the most of something is to extract maximum benefit from it. The latter resembles the pattern of MAKE + fixed noun + preposition.