The following sentences all involve the verb "show" followed by a noun phrase. Number 6 sounds a bit weird, and the last one is just wrong — but why is that?

  1. The video shows the differences between them.
  2. The video shows them being different/the same.
  3. The purpose of the video is to show the differences between them.
  4. The purpose of the video is to show them being different/the same.
  5. The video shows the effects of smoking.
  6. The video shows smoking being unhealthy.
  7. The purpose of the video is to show the effects of smoking.
  8. The purpose of the video is to show smoking being unhealthy.

These are "grammatically correct", meaning they meet the expectation (as of now) of how verbs/nouns/etc go together. I'm interested in the reason why the two sound awkward. In particular, I want to know what it is that people expect to hear after "show" which distinguishes 6,8 from 2,4, for instance.

  • 4
    What is wrong with 6 and 8? They may sound a little awkward, but they're not ungrammatical.
    – Robusto
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:20
  • 3
    To make them a little less awkward you might say, "... show[s] smoking as being unhealthy."
    – Jim
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:28
  • 2
    @Robusto Being awkward is what I meant. Of course one can make up tons of phrases which are extremely awkward to vocalise without being "grammatically incorrect". Although I'm not a native speaker, I could certainly have looked up grammatical rules in a dictionary by myself, unless you're saying stackexchange is no more than a dictionary? I tagged the question as a usage question precisely because I don't think it has anything to with grammar.
    – hwhm
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:40
  • Normally when I encounter what I feel is awkward, like #6, I see that as a hint to use another word. In that case, perhaps "demonstrate" would be more suitable.
    – Paperjam
    Jan 31, 2013 at 22:47
  • 1
    What @hwhm said. #6 is "unhappy" because it would normally be phrased as "The video shows smoking is unhealthy". Jan 31, 2013 at 23:06

2 Answers 2


I've commented as much, but I think there should be an answer so people can vote on it.

OP's #6 and #8 aren't "valid", in my opinion, because they're not intended to mean the video shows an isolated instance of smoking being unhealthy. They're showing smoking is unhealthy. Always.

If it had been This video shows John being stupid, that wouldn't imply John is always stupid. Personally, I'd say it almost implies the opposite, since if you were trying to make a case for John being inherently stupid you'd almost certainly say This video shows/demonstrates John is stupid.

By similar reasoning, OP's #2 and #4 are also at the very least poor phrasing. Reasonable alternatives include...

2a. The video shows they are different/the same.
2b. The video shows them to be different/the same.
4a. The purpose of the video is to show them as [being] different/the same.

The reason present continuous [being] is an "acceptable" option (but not preferred, in my opinion), in #4a is because the word "as" implies they're being shown as they really are (a continuous state, not just the way they happen to be at the time of appearing in some particular video).

  • So do you mean, by the same logic, that sentence #2 ("The video shows them being different") also contains the implication that the things being compared are not expected to be different?
    – hwhm
    Jan 31, 2013 at 23:53
  • @hwhm: I hadn't really considered #2 and #4 - but yes, I consider those to be "unhappy" sentences as well. I'll edit to reflect that. Jan 31, 2013 at 23:56
  • @hwhm: Also just realised you asked something about expectations. I don't think any of these variations are affected by whether the audience (or the speaker, before having seen the video) might or might not expect or believe what it's going to show them. Feb 1, 2013 at 2:44

The awkwardness stems from close proximity of two words ending in -ing that need to be parsed differently. In your example, smoking is a noun made from a verb, but the reader may attempt to parse it as a part of a noun phrase and then come up short when the very next word needs to be parsed similarly, but with a different outcome.

We experience no such difficulty with a parallel construction:

The picture shows John being funny.

We know how to parse John, and "being funny" retreats from the awkward into the unremarkable.

  • Another case of Doubl-ing. Jan 31, 2013 at 23:00
  • I don't agree that show John being funny is exactly parallel to show smoking being unhealthy. In John's case, the showing is specifically concerned with presenting a particular incident where John is funny - usually with no implication that John is always funny, and that the audience might need to be informed of this fact. In support of this I suggest you can easily replace John's one with illustrate, but that doesn't normally work with smoking (unless, say, the video shows someone setting fire to their hair while trying to light a cigarette! :) Jan 31, 2013 at 23:05
  • @Robusto. I see the collocation of smoking being as awkward. But removing the immediate juxtaposition, as in "This is a picture showing John being funny" seems more natural. Am I following your point? Does this help? Jan 31, 2013 at 23:21
  • @JohnLawler If I'm not mistaken, Doubl-ing refers to the juxtaposition of two present participles. "Smoking" isn't used as a present participle here.
    – hwhm
    Jan 31, 2013 at 23:48
  • @Jim I don't think that's what Robusto meant. "Smoking" is parsed as a noun, while "being" is parsed as part of a gerund clause, hence the awkwardness. In your example, both "showing" and "being" are parsed with the same outcome, each as part of a gerund clause.
    – hwhm
    Jan 31, 2013 at 23:58

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