4

Meta: I found a very similar post asking the difference between "I saw him cross" and "I saw him crossing". I have three additional questions on sentences of this form.


In the post I am referring to, the accepted answer was "I saw him cross the road" implies I saw the entire event of him crossing the road and "I saw him crossing the road" implies I saw him in the middle of the crossing but I didn't wait to see whether he finished crossing the road.

Q1. But what if we watch instead of see? Consider the sentences below.

I watched her dance alone in the room.
I watched her dancing alone in the room.

Watch implies something that goes on for a while. But does the original explanation still hold, i.e. does the first sentence imply I watched the entire dance and the second imply I did not?


Q2. What if you see actions that are almost instantaneous? Does the explanation still hold good? Here is an example:

I saw a flash of lightning strike the pole.
I saw a flash of lightning striking the pole.

Here, we cannot stop seeing in the middle of a lightning since it happens so fast. Does that make the second sentence wrong or can we still use either sentence to mean the same thing?


Q3. Which of the sentences below is/are correct?

I caught her steal the diamond ring
I caught her stealing the diamond ring

When you catch someone in the act, that person could not finish the act. So does that make the first sentence incorrect?

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, David, Cascabel, Davo, AndyT Jun 22 '17 at 11:43

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • 1
    As for your third question, *I caught her steal is not a normal English sentence. The reason is that steal, in this case, is a bare infinitive, which is only used after certain verbs, such as see, watch, help (sometimes), and auxiliaries. – Anonym Mar 9 '14 at 16:54
  • Likewise, "I caught her dance alone in the room" is just as invalid. – MrHen Mar 25 '14 at 17:39
3

The short answers:

  • Q1 — "watched her dance" and "watched her dancing" are both acceptable. There are slightly different connotations but the meaning is clear. Pragmatically, they mean the same thing.
  • Q2 — "strike the pole" and "striking the pole" are both acceptable. There are slightly different connotations but the meaning is clear. Pragmatically, they mean the same thing.
  • Q3 — "caught her steal" is incorrect and should be avoided. "caught her stealing" is the correct form.

The connotation differences in Q1 and Q2 are very slight and are more obvious with different examples.

Q1. The part that matters here is not "watched":

I watched her cross the room.

I watched her crossing the room.

These both mean roughly the same thing that using "saw" would mean:

I saw her cross the room.

I saw her crossing the room.

The connotation difference lies in the intent of the watcher. Watching something implies a more deliberate action. "Seeing" something can happen through pure happenstance and does not imply much about the intent of the seer. Case in point, the first from the following pair of examples is much creepier:

I watched her through her bedroom window.

I saw her through her bedroom window.

So the answer to Q1 is the same as the answer you reference in your question. Using "watched" in place of "saw" does not alter the example.


Q2. Things that are instantaneous are not actually instantaneous in the sense that your being able to see it means it occurred over a specific period of time. So, the principle from the answer you reference still holds.

That being said, the difference between "strike" and "striking" is so subtle that there is no pragmatic difference between the two and would only be used in order to "flavor" the meaning.

For example, if you wanted to "stop time" in the middle of the "striking" in order to process the state of mind in a character, "striking" would work very well:

I saw a flash of lightning striking the pole and [melodramatic prose goes here].

But this kind of over-analysis will probably fly right past the reader unnoticed and phrasing things this pedantically generally isn't recommended.

-1

Striking is a singular action. I strike a nail with a hammer, then I strike it again, then I strike it one last time. If I said "I'm striking the nail", that would either mean that I'm striking it repeatedly, or that I'm referring to the instant in time when the hammer hits the nail.

Dancing is a continuous action; it can go on for an indefinite period of time. Just like talking, or thinking, or watching. So I don't see any difference between "I watched her dance" and "I watched her dancing".

I think "to catch [someone] [doing something]" is just a special case, and we can leave it at that. You'd never say "I caught her embezzle" or "I caught her plagiarize", right? It's English, it doesn't have to be logical.

  • So are you saying that "I saw a flash of lightning strike the pole" is the correct sentence in question 2? – Max2015 Mar 10 '14 at 6:06
  • In question 2, I don't think either one is wrong, but in most cases you'd want to use "strike". If you were looking at a photo that captured the exact moment when the lightning struck, then "striking" would be OK. – Mike Baranczak Mar 10 '14 at 17:43
  • With the lightning, even though it is so fast, there can be a tiny difference in nuance: “I turned and saw a bolt of lightning strike the pole” implies that the lightning struck right after you turned around, whereas “I turned and saw a bolt of lightning striking the pole” implies that the lightning was striking the pole as you turned around—in other words, you turned at exactly the same time as lightning struck, and you're really only seeing the last bit of it (the fading light that lingers for about half a second, say). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 25 '14 at 17:53

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.