Burning questions about teaching English in China #5: You can’t let me!

Betty seems to be mad at Veronica (R)

Puzzler #5: Why do students confuse the verbs “make” and “let”?

Moving on from spelling errors and interesting ways to write letters, here’s a common error in vocabulary usage. This one puzzles me, because I had assumed the meanings of “make” and “let” are pretty clear. In fact, the two verbs are almost opposite in meaning. Yet, many students get them confused.

Perhaps the trouble lies with dictionary definitions, because in looking at my own Chinese-English dictionaries, I can see their definitions could be confusing. For example, under “make” I see the Chinese word 让 ràng, which can mean “to let sb do sth.” Under the word “let,” I see the same Chinese word 让 ràng with the additional meaning of “to have sb do sth.”

So, I can see how a beginning learner of English could confuse the two words. Bilingual dictionaries are great for quickly finding the meanings of words, but they often do a poor job of showing how those words are most commonly used. In fact, even the Merriam-Webster dictionary (English-to-English) can be confusing to a non-native speaker. Here is where textbooks and teachers need to step in and teach correct usage.

“Make” and “let” are both very old words in English, and over the centuries they have acquired many different meanings. Here, I am only addressing their use in interpersonal relationships.

To make sb do sth = to require (or compel) sb to do sth (They have no choice in the matter,)

My mother makes me wash the dishes after every meal, even if I have lots of homework!

To let sb do sth = to allow (or permit) sb to do sth (They have a choice.)

My father let me drive the family car today for the first time!

If you switch the two verbs in those sentences, the meanings change quite a lot. If your mom lets you wash the dishes, that suggests you like washing dishes and/or your mom trusts you not to drop and break them. If your dad makes you drive the family car, it suggests you don’t really want to drive it at all and he is being rather mean about it.

The best way I think to keep these meanings straight is this memory trick:


I get MAD when someone MAKES me do something.

I LIKE it when someone LETS me do something.

Here’s a couple of songs to help you remember the differences, too.

“I can’t make you love me, if you don’t.”

She can’t compel the man to love her, if he really doesn’t care for her.

“Don’t you give up, now now now
I won’t give up now now now,
Let me love you, let me love you.”

He wants the woman to accept his love for her, to allow him to be her boyfriend.

So you see, “make” and “let” are not quite the same thing.

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Also published on Medium.

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