See somebody DO something vs. see somebody DOING something

 

Q:

What is the difference between "see somebody do something" and "see somebody doing something"?

HK
Japan

A:

There is a small difference in meaning when a verb of perception is followed by the simple form of the verb, and when it is followed by the -ing form, as in these sentences:

(a)

Before we realized it, we saw a deer run across the road just in front of our car. Thankfully, he got to the other side safely, because we could not have avoided hitting him.

(b)

Before we realized it, we saw a deer running across the road, right in front of us. We put on our brakes quickly and just missed hitting him by an inch, as he leapt quickly out of the path of the car.

Sentence (a) describes a completed action; the observer saw the entire action of the deer's running across the road. Sentence (b) describes an incomplete action; the deer was in the middle of running across the road when we saw him. This sentence could be paraphrased to read: ".we saw a deer while he was running across the road."

The simple form of the verb, after a verb of perception, gives the idea that the action was observed from beginning to end during the time of perception, as in sentence (a) above and sentence (c) below.

The -ing form of the verb, after a verb of perception, gives the idea that the action is in progress but not completed at the time of perception, as in sentence (b) above and sentence (d) below:

(c)

When we were driving upstate, we heard the Eastern Regional Symphony play Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It was excellent from beginning to end.

(d)

When we were driving upstate, we heard the Eastern Regional Symphony playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It was excellent, but unfortunately we couldn't hear all of it because we got out of range of the radio station.

Here's one more:

(e)

Did you see the accused strike the victim?

(f)

Did you see the accused striking the victim?

Clearly, sentence (e) refers to one complete action, a strike, while sentence (f) refers to a continuous action of striking, with no indication of beginning or end.

Sometimes the meanings are not so clearly differentiated, as in these sentences:

(g)

It's wonderful to see a baby smile and hear a baby laugh.

(h)

It's wonderful to see a baby smiling and hear a baby laughing.

Still, as a general rule, the simple form of the verb in these cases describes one complete action, while the -ing form describes an incomplete part of an action.

(To see a related comment,

"I saw him jump," click here.)

 

Return to the Key Word Index