Marla glanced at her watch. Half past four. She'd been in the subway since morning, doing nothing in particular—just watching trains come and go, people getting on and off. A typical commuting scene.

My first impulse was just to write getting instead of get. But after reading the sentence again I said: wait I wrote come and go shouldn't I write get instead? But after replacing it with get something seemed off.

So I'm a bit confused, should I use get or getting?

  • It's quite OK to 'watch people get on and off trains', and to 'watch people getting on and off trains'. You can choose whichever sounds better in context - punchier vs habitual. The problem comes with the imbalance of bare-infinitive and -ing form catenations. He watched Bell bat and Onions bowling. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 2 '13 at 15:55
  • The question is about watching with get/getting, not watch or watched. You're doing a complete rewrite, which is not what was asked. – Giambattista Oct 2 '13 at 16:04

Just watching trains come and go is fine, and so is just watching people get on and off. A problem arises when you try to put the two together. If you write Just watching trains come and go, people get on and off, the syntax isn’t immediately obvious. It sounds as if people get on and off is a new finite clause, when get, like come and go is, in my view, a bare infinitive. It will be clearer if you write getting on and off, but if you use that, it might be as well to change come and go to coming and going to create a parallel structure. That, however, does create rather a lot of -ing forms, one after the other.

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It's getting because you're not talking about a one time event. Whenever you are talking about a continuous action without a definite end, you use the progressive tenses (auxiliary verb + verb + -ing)

In this case you're using the present perfect progressive because the action began in the past and is still happening. You're actually saying She had been watching people getting on and off.

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  • No - there is a choice here. Getting on / off a train is punctual for each person; you can certainly have "She watched John get on the train." The overall scenario, covering a whole morning of such activities, certainly also licenses the continuous. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 2 '13 at 15:59
  • You switched the tense. Now it is in the past and has a discreet end. The action in the example is ongoing. In the example, it would awkward to use watching and get. – Giambattista Oct 2 '13 at 16:01
  • The ratio of Google hits for "watching birds arrive" : "watching birds arriving" is 56 700 : 5. Switching 'trains' for 'birds' roughly equalises the returns. As Barrie says, " 'Watching trains come and go' is fine, and so is 'watching people get on and off' ". The watching is durative, the getting on / off and the coming and going can be regarded as punctual. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 3 '13 at 0:02
  • You're not getting it. I agree with Barrie England, you're misreading what he said. You left out the part where he says they are fine separately, but not when joined together. We both gave different reasons as to why getting is correct, but we both agreed that it was correct nonetheless. You keep insisting on reconstructing the sentence when in fact that is not what is asked. – Giambattista Oct 3 '13 at 0:13
  • No. As is obvious in my first comment, I'm disagreeing with your imperious 'It's getting because you're not talking about a one time event.' - where you don't address the balance that Barrie does (and I too agree with his reasoning about the sentence as a whole). I'm saying Barrie's reason holds but yours needs toning down. The continuous tenses are used for durative processes, but here, individual punctual events may also be indicated, with a bare infinitive clause. Google hits for "watching him build" : "watching him building" number 1 100 000 : 200 000. Please stop muddying the waters. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 3 '13 at 9:38

I thought below small change could solve this issue a lot better.

just watching trains come and go, and people getting on and off.

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  • Isn't that exactly what I wrote? – janoChen Oct 2 '13 at 16:41
  • But this seems to imply that the trains' arrivals and departures individually take less time than the passengers' stepping on and off - it still doesn't have the nicely balanced parallel structure that seems stylistically preferable. "She'd been in the subway since morning, doing nothing in particular — just watching trains coming and going, people getting on and off." or, more staccato: "She'd been in the subway since morning, doing nothing in particular — just watching trains come and go. People get on and off." – Edwin Ashworth Oct 3 '13 at 10:35
  • @jano It's not the same. In this example, Hemant added an 'and', presumably to make the separation of ideas, and thus the parallelism, clearer. Although if that's what he meant, he ought to have said so. – Kit Z. Fox Oct 3 '13 at 22:33

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