Grammar of "I see him [verb]"
May 25, 2023 5:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious about the grammar of the underlined part of this sentence from The New Yorker:
In spite of her experiences witnessing protocols fail or be subverted, Easthope still argues strongly for disaster and recovery plans.
Some specific questions inside...

I gather there is a class of verbs in English which can take complements of the form [direct object] [infinitive verb phrase without "to"]. These verbs definitely include "see", "hear", and "watch", as well as the phrases "look at" and "listen to":
  1. She sees him run.
  2. I hear babies cry / I watch them grow.
  3. Look at 'em go!
This kind of sentence also seems maybe possible with some other verbs that have "perceive"-like meanings. These sentences sound acceptable to me, if faintly questionable:
  1. I notice her stumble.
  2. I observe them scatter.
  3. She witnessed protocols fail.
Other than these "seeing"-like verbs, I can think of one other semantic cluster of verbs that allow this syntax, exemplified by the following:
  1. You made me cry.
  2. I'll have you know...
  3. I bid thee depart.
But most verbs don't seem to allow this syntax, including some verbs with semantic features similar to the above. For example, I don't think "know" is in this class. ("I know her to be honest" is a non-example as it uses "to"; "I know [that] he knows" is also a non-example as the complement is a finite verb phrase.)

Is there a name for this class of verbs? Where I can read more about it? Can you think of other verbs that belong to it? And just for the record, how do you feel about that New Yorker sentence?
posted by aws17576 to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *Where can I read more

(It's a rule of the universe that any post about grammar must contain at least one error, right?)
posted by aws17576 at 5:37 PM on May 25

The term to search for seems to be "zero infinitive".
posted by panic at 5:52 PM on May 25 [3 favorites]

I see these called "verbs of perception" (example). They take the bare infinitive, as you noticed. I don't know that there is a better way to describe the general class of verbs that take the bare infinitive (like "make" and "have") besides "verbs that take the bare infinitive".

I think the New Yorker sentence is fine. I might parse it a fraction of a second faster if it said "failing or being subverted" instead.
posted by dfan at 6:04 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

I don't like the New Yorker sentence. "witnessing...subverted" is a gerund phrase modifying "experiences," not actually a verb (notice the lack of subject), and thus beyond the ambit of the rule you have correctly intuited. Hence I think it should be "failing or being subverted."
posted by praemunire at 6:20 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The first two sets of words (see, hear, watch, look at, listen to, notice, observe, witness) are sometimes called sense or sensory verbs. Here's a Stack Exchange answer with some discussion of the construction that you mentioned (bare infinitive complements), and some links.

In your third set of words, "made" and "have" in your sentences are called causatives. The last "bid" sentence feels like a fossilized construction (it has "thee") and might not be part of a larger pattern.

Both sense verbs and causatives can take bare infinitive complements like in your "witnessing" sentence. Here's a paper on bare infinitives in English (some interesting distinctions between American and British English!) - section 2 has some references which describe sensory verbs and causatives as two groups that can take bare infinitive complements, so there might be more to read about there.
posted by uninjured landlord at 8:33 PM on May 25 [3 favorites]

It might be a little difficult to follow without a background in theoretical linguistics, but you could try looking up work about small clauses.
posted by sineala at 1:01 PM on May 27

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