Brigitte gets her hair cut, I say something stupid, and we explore causation in French

One day Brigitte walked into the office looking even more fetching than usual.  T’as coupé les cheveux? I asked–did you cut your hair?  Je me suis fait couper les cheveux, she corrected me–I had my hair cut.  In English, you could say either (as well as some other stuff, like I got my hair cut or I got a haircut or (for a woman, but not a man) I had my hair done, although that’s a bit different, as it could involve things like curling without actually cutting), but in French, if it’s a “caused action,” you have to use the faire construction.

This can actually be a fairly complex construction, in French as well as in English.  Laura Lawless‘s page on breaks it down into four possibilities:

  1. The thing that is being acted on is being expressed, but not doing the action.
  2. The thing that is doing the action is being expressed, but not the thing that is being acted on.
  3. The thing that is doing the action and the thing that is being acted on are both expressed.
  4. The one exceptional expression faire voir, “to let someone see something” or to “show someone something.”

Let’s work through these.  They all have one thing in common: the verb faire will be followed by an infinitive.  So: Je me suis fait couper les cheveux.  If you’re doing Laura Lawless’s first option–only mentioning the thing to which the action will be done–you have this formula: faire + infinite + object.  For example:

A l’international, Interflora vous permet de faire livrer des fleurs dans plus de 140 pays grâce à un réseau mondial qui regroupe 45 000 artisans fleuristes.

“Internationally, Interflora lets you have flowers delivered in more than 140 countries, thanks to a world-wide network that brings together 45,000 florist artists.”


Let’s suppose that you’re only going to mention the person (or whatever) you you’re going to cause to do the action.  It’s actually the same formula: faire + infinitive + actor.  Google gave me this autocomplete:

Screenshot 2016-01-26 04.26.10
“How to make a teenager study.” Picture source: Google autocomplete screen shot.

What if we want to express both the person (or thing) who we’re going to make do the action, and also the thing to which the action will be done?  Now the formula gets interesting.  (OK: I freely admit that my definition of “interesting” might be a bit different from yours.)  Now we have faire + infinitive + object + à/par + actor.  What that means: we’ll have faire + infinitive, as always.  Then we have the person or thing that is being acted on.  Then we have à or par, followed by the actor.  Let’s see some examples.  I’m going to borrow/steal them from Laura Lawless’s page, because searching for these things is beastly and I prefer not to make up examples myself:

Je fais laver la voiture par/à David.
I’m having David wash the car.

Il fait réparer la machine par/à sa sœur.
He’s having his sister fix the machine.

How about if we have pronouns?  Negation?  Reflexives?  (Advice from a linguist: when you’re learning a new verbal construction, learn the negated, pronominal, and reflexive forms sooner rather than later.)

Here’s a good example of a negation.  Moral of this story: the negative goes on the verb avoir. 

En deux ans et demi mon travaille est irréprochable mais j’ai eu quelques rares absenses dut à une maladie, que je n’ai pas fait attester par un médicin.

For two and a half years my work has been flawless but I have had some occasional absences due to an illness that I didn’t have a doctor vouch for.  Note: absenses should be absences, travaille should be travail, and I think dut should be dû.


Here’s a good example of a pronominal actor, from this web page on how to apologize via text message.  Moral of the story: the pronoun goes on faire. 

Je ne voulais pas te faire souffrir. S’il te plaît pardonne moi. Je ne sais pas comment te dire que je suis vraiment désolé.

I didn’t want to make you suffer.  Please forgive me.  I don’t know how to tell you that I’m really sorry.

Here’s a good example of a pronominal acted-on.  Moral of the story: it’s a direct object pronoun–in this case, la.

Screenshot 2016-01-26 16.26.11
“Can you send me your corrected composition?  I’d like to have my students read it.” Picture source: Screen shot of an email from my French tutor.

Here’s an example of a situation where you’re going to have something done to or for yourself.  Moral of the story: the reflexive particle (in this case, me) goes on faire.

Arrête-moi, je vais me faire tatouer
Stop me, I’m going to have myself tattooed


The final faire causatif construction that Laura Lawless tells us about is faire voir: let (me) see.  Faites voir!  is the formal form, and fais voir! is the informal form.  They both mean “let me see!”

Can these constructions be ambiguous?  I’ll bet they can.  Consider this example from, which I found thanks to the marvelous web site:

Puis-je faire envoyer mon relevé de notes à mon adresse personnelle ?

Can I have my transcript sent to my personal address? 
Could that possibly be interpreted as “Can I have my transcript sent by my personal address?”  I’ll have to ask native speakers to jump in here, but it almost certainly can.  A human wouldn’t make this mistake, but a computer has no way to avoid it without some knowledge of the kinds of things that can send things, and the kinds of things that can be sent.  We talked about this kind of issue for computer interpretation of language here.  (I saw a great example of this with Hollande, the current president of France, but can’t find it now.)  There’s plenty more to know about the faire causatif construction–what if you’re having something done to or for yourself?  What if there are two pronouns (“I’m making her do it”)?  How about passives?  If you want to know more about how all of these things work in the faire causatif, do check out Laura Lawless‘s page on–it’s really very clear.


10 thoughts on “Brigitte gets her hair cut, I say something stupid, and we explore causation in French”

  1. Bonjour – Thanks for linking to my old lesson, but I think the new one is even better: (I’m rewriting everything from About for my new site, making major and minor improvements as I go, so I would encourage you to check first, rather than my old site. Of course, if you think a new lesson is lacking, please do let me know!)

    Also, a tiny typo: T’a (=> T’as) coupé les cheveux?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the link to the lesson, and for pointing out the coquille. Regarding the new page: maybe add some examples with reflexives? Also, I appreciated your “faire voir” example on the old page.


  3. A little thing : your “faire + infinitive + object + à/par + actor” is a bit weird to me . 90% of the time there’s no use for “à” here . Therefore your final question about personal address is pointless . Nous faisons faire quelque chose PAR quelqu’un . It sounds rather awkward when someone people says ” j’ai fait laver la voiture à Paul ” rather than “par Paul” . Especially since in colloquial daily French “la voiture à Paul” means “la voiture de Paul” .
    But the truth is if Paul is replaced by a pronoun this “à Paul” idea is implied . It’s perfectly normal to say “je lui ai fait laver la voiture” .
    Exactly as ” Je lui ai fait voir la maison, ou la vérité ” ( I let him see the house, OR I made him see the truth ). Because “faire voir” is not alone . Je lui ai fait entendre cette musique, ( I let him hear ), je lui ai fait comprendre cela ( I made him understand ) . And yes in these cases it is “à” : J’ai fait voir la maison à Paul, but Paul’s action is somehow passive . If you want a work to be done by Paul, you say “par Paul” . It is so true that if you Paul is a professional who will give you his expert opinion about the condition of the house you want to buy you say ” J’ai fait voir la maison par Paul .

    Another time I’ll tell you about a nowadays ubiquitous error linked to this ” faire + infinitive” when the agreement of past participles is concerned . I cringe every time I hear it, because they are so sure they speak as it must be . And they are French !

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This one is a pain, since people have good reasons to argument and pretend they are right . It’s is the feminine added to “fait” when it is an grammatical error .
    Here : “Elle s’est faite couper les cheveux”, “elle s’est faite taper”, and so on . In the last decades I saw this erroneous trend spread every year more .
    To understand you have to penetrate the logic of French grammar, which is not too easy with pronominal verbs . First, this curious French structure ” je me suis fait couper les cheveux ” to mean “I had my hair cut” is strange by itself . But anyways, the common rule had to be applied .

    You know that, with “avoir” auxiliary, past participles must agree only if the direct object is placed before the verb . To understand the modern error you need to “unroll” the phrase, to take it out of its pronominal form . It won’t be proper French but it will still mean the same thing . “Je me suis fait couper les cheveux” is the contraction of ” J’ai fait couper les cheveux de moi” . This unsaid sentence is the frame of the grammar of the sentence . In the unrolled version we easily can see the direct object de “J”ai fait” is the infinitive clause “couper les cheveux” . “J’ai fait quoi? – couper les cheveux” . So a neuter direct object, and further placed after the verb “j’ai fait” .
    People who annoyingly say “elle s’est faite faire ” this or that make an agreement with the subject, which is fine with “être” auxiliary but in the French expression ” se faire faire ” something, it’s a fake être” auxiliary : French can be a coded message by itself, that’s how we spot KGB agents .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh shit . I thought you knew the basis . With “être” the past participle agrees with the subject, “elle est partie”, and with “avoir” the PP only agrees with the direct object, and only if it is placed before . “J’ai cassé des assiettes”, but ” les assiette que j’ai cassées” .
    I hate modern ways of teaching languages . I can tell you when I left to wander in Brazil I brought with me an old school Portuguese grammar book together with a mini-dictionary . I did the same in Mexico with Spanish, and as I was alone (and I study seriously when I do) I could spend nights chatting with new mates after one month .


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