make sure

It started with tv commercials for home security systems, for example:

No-show alerts to make sure your kids get home safe (SafeMart systems)

SafeWatch VideoView allows you to keep an eye on who is knocking at your front door, watch over a vacation home, or make sure your kids are safe. (ADT systems)

These have the idiom make sure with a (that) Clause complement. But it turns out that there are two understandings of such examples:

[verifying]  make sure (that) Clause: ‘verify that Clause is true’

[causative] make sure (that) Clause: ’cause it to come about that Clause is true’

The security systems intend the verifying reading — they provide a way to see if your kids are, in fact, safe(ly) at home — but of course they can’t ensure that this will be the case.

The line between the two understandings is subtle, and many examples could go either way (or both), as in

I made sure the kids ate their spinach.

Intransitive uses of make sure have the verifying understandng. There are two kinds of syntax: make sure with a to VP complement:

make/be sure to be there on time

and make sure with an of + NP complement:

make sure (of something):  to check something and be certain about it. Please make sure of your facts before you write the report. We made sure of the route we had to follow before we left. Please double-check and make sure. {McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs, 2002)


One Response to “make sure”

  1. Randy Alexander Says:

    Does the differentiation have something with tense? In the past tense spinach example there is ambiguity, but in the non-past transitive examples it seems that the differentiation depends on whether the clause is a predication (make sure X is Y) or not (make sure X does Y).

    Also, isn’t Be sure to be there on time! causative? Or is there a fuzzy semantic line between causing something to happen and verifying that it will happen (as opposed to verifying that is has happened, which is not fuzzy at all)?

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