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sadiesayit's avatar

In the sentence "He watched the girl run away," what's happening, grammatically? (See details please).

Asked by sadiesayit (371points) 1 month ago

My grasp of formal grammar terms is shaky, but I’m trying to learn a bit more.

At the moment, the back half of sentences constructed like this are confusing me. (To be clear, I’m not confused about how to construct these sorts of sentences—I’m confused about how to describe what’s happening… I’m a native English speaker, and while I know these examples “sounds right,” I can’t explain why).

- He watched the girl run away.
– She saw the dog sniff the fire hydrant.
– Ella made her sister return the book that she’d stolen from the neighbor.

1. What would you call the italicized phrase (or clause)? (Or, if this type of pattern has more to do with the main verb than the portion I italicized, what would you call this type of sentence?)

2. How do you describe what’s happening with the italicized verb? I know that I’m doing something with the verb, but I don’t understand what it is. It’s not a main verb, it doesn’t seem to really have a sense of time (tense), but it’s also not an “infinitive,” (and it’s clearly not a “participle,” or “gerund,” and after that I’m out of terms I know)... so what is it?

Much thanks for any help! :)

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10 Answers

gondwanalon's avatar

Perhaps it’s better to write, “He watched a girl run away.”.

They use to say, “Smokey The Bear”. And “The Grand Canyon”. Now it’s, “Smokey Bear” and “Grand Canyon”.

LostInParadise's avatar

The italicized words are direct objects in the whole sentences, but I am not sure what to call them. They don’t form independent clauses, since they can’t stand on their own. One problem I have is to determine the verb form. For example, what verb form of run is used in “He watched the girl run away”? It is obviously not present tense, which would be “runs”. Infinitive and subjunctive don’t make sense either.

I think the last example may be a subjunctive clause with the word “that” understood. Link

LostInParadise's avatar

According to this , the the third case is a “bare infinitive”, which is an infinitive without “to”. I don’t know if that applies to the other examples you gave.

LostInParadise's avatar

Probably bare infinitive is what they all are. I found this It has an example using “watched” similar to yours.

janbb's avatar

Sent to Jeruba who is the real grammarian here. I have a great sense of how to write and what works, but my diagramming days are far behind me.

Zaku's avatar

It’s called a gerund .

“The girl running away” is a gerund phrase, which acts as a noun object grammatically.

Jeruba's avatar

Your analysis is good as far as it goes. It’s a tough one, and I haven’t researched it, but I would view it as elliptical (=something omitted), in this case an infinitive without the “to.” We use elliptical constructions all the time, and they’re part of idiomatic speech.*

It isn’t a gerund, which is the present participle (the ”-ing” form) used as a noun, as in “I like answering questions.” It isn’t a participle at all. And it is definitely not subjunctive.

Note its similarity to these examples:

He told the girl to run away.
She ordered the dog to sniff the fire hydrant.
Ella encouraged her sister to return the book that she’d stolen from the neighbor.

I can’t tell you exactly why we include the “to” in some of those and not others. @Demosthenes is the linguistics major, and he probably knows. My grammar terminology is, shall we say, premodern, but my sense of the structures is still sound.

I say that the essence of grammar is in relationships. And the primary relationship is between the main verb and its subject. Find the main verb first, then its subject, and then sort out the rest. This is my own approach, at any rate.

An answer to a grammatical puzzle is never to rewrite the sentence so the puzzle is no longer there. That might fix an error but won’t solve the puzzle, any more than, if your car won’t start, taking the key and trying it on your neighbor’s car.

So if I were taking a pop quiz on this, cold, I would say that in each case the noun following the main verb is the direct object, and the following verb (@D: is that a “verb complement”? That term wasn’t part of my schooling) is an elliptical infinitive (“bare,” I suppose).

I’ll also make a guess that the presence or absence of the infinitive marker “to” has something to do with a class of verbs that includes linking verbs and their structural equivalent.

I might not ace that quiz, but I wouldn’t flunk it either. Let’s see what @Demosthenes says.


*“Idiomatic” meaning it’s just the way we say something. It doesn’t mean cliches like “as old as the hills.” It means constructions that mean something when assembled that the pieces don’t add up to separately, such as “keep up with” or “make do.” Idiomatic speech is what native speakers learn from birth and language learners are probably always going to struggle with.

Some other time I’ll go into what is often mistaught as “idioms” and how they are often confused with simile and metaphor by people who don’t understand the words “like” and “as.”

Strauss's avatar

@Jeruba GA!

Just a side note on “idiomatic”:

When I studied Homeric Greek, we were introduced to the difference between a literal translation and an idiomatic translation. The Greek phrase ‘Omoion estin ‘omoion philon literally translates to “Similar things are friendly to similar things”. An idiomatic translation would be “Birds of a feather flock together”.

Jeruba's avatar

@Strauss, thank you. It’s a special challenge in translation, so I understand. But “Likes attract likes” would also be idiomatic. It would not have to be a proverbial expression to be idiomatic.

I’ve read certain works with several translations side by side so I could gain a real sense of the words through both a careful literal translation and the inevitable interpreting that goes along with idiomatic translation. It’s very enlightening.

sadiesayit's avatar

Thank you, everyone! It being a “bare” or “elliptical” infinitive makes sense to me (and I didn’t know those things existed before this question! Thank you for those terms, @LostInParadise and @Jeruba)

I appreciate everyone’s time to answer this question, and if @Demosthenes sees this (or others do) and has anything to add, I look forward to it!

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