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I'm correcting some writing and the student wrote,

We can see the shrine become big, little by little, from the ferry.

As far as I'm concerned, it's grammatically okay, but I'm having trouble explaining why it shouldn't be 'becomes big'. For the life of me I couldn't find the correct way to refer to the grammar involved here. Also, I feel like becoming bigger or getting bigger might convey her meaning more accurately, but that become big still gets a pass. Am I right?

I appreciate any help you can give me.

  • I think I can now provide a decent answer to your question. I'll try an attempt later tonight. :) – F.E. Apr 25 '14 at 21:09
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    If the main verb, see, is put in the past simple the sentence improves and it makes more logical sense. "We saw the shrine become big, little by little, from the ferry" – Mari-Lou A Apr 26 '14 at 6:06
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    I'm voting to reopen because the supposed "duplicate" doesn't answer the OP's question. – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 17:36
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    If you change the verb from see to hear, you realize that "I heard Mick Jagger sings" and "I heard Mick Jagger sing" mean quite different things. – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 17:39
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I think "bigger" might sound better because size is more suited to relative adjectives. It also perhaps better matches the sense of gradual change in the sentence.

We can see the shrine become bigger, little by little, from the ferry.

... sounds fine to me. Whether to use "become" or "becoming" doesn't seem an issue of correctness.

  • I agree. With big, I almost get the feeling the shrine has two states it oscillates between, big and, er.. not big. I just didn't feel it was strictly wrong. – Aron Apr 28 '14 at 9:51
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  • We can see the shrine become big, little by little, from the ferry.

In your example, the difference between the versions that use "become" and "becomes" is that one version uses a non-finite clause complement ("become") and the other version a finite clause complement ("becomes"). Sometimes the meaning of the sentence might be affected. The differences between the two versions can sometimes be seen more clearly if corresponding versions using personal pronouns were looked at. And so . . .

I'm thinking that a practical way of explaining this is by using a diagnostic tool which uses the case of personal pronouns: nominative versus accusative.

First, let's do a little parsing:

  • We can see [the shrine become big, little by little, from the ferry].

The expression inside the brackets contains the complements of the head verb "see".

Your problem involves the question: Does the verb "become" have to be in subject/verb agreement with the noun phrase (NP) "the shrine". That is, is the verb "become" a tensed verb form (i.e. a present-tense or past-tense verb form). For if it is, then the verb agrees in number with its subject.

This diagnostic tool involves replacing the NP with an accusative personal pronoun and using it with a non-tensed verb form, and then see if the result still has the intended meaning. In this case:

  • 1.a) We can see [them become big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 1.b) We can see [it become big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 1.c) We can see [him become big, little by little, from the ferry].

Those above three versions seem to be fine to my AmE ear. If you agree, then it seems that a non-tensed "become" is acceptable here, and also would be acceptable in your original example: "We can see the shrine become big, little by little, from the ferry." In other words, the head verb "see" in your example accepts a non-finite clause (which is the subordinate clause headed by "become").

Now let's see how the corresponding nominative personal pronouns work with a tensed verb form that agrees with it in number:

  • 2.a) We can see [they become big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 2.b) We can see [it becomes big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 2.c) We can see [he becomes big, little by little, from the ferry].

I'm not sure, but these versions sound, er, so-so to my ear--maybe a bit awkward when compared to the #1 versions; though, maybe they could be completely acceptable to other ears. But if we also insert the marker of clausal subordination "that" into the #2 versions:

  • 3.a) We can see [that they become big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 3.b) We can see [that it becomes big, little by little, from the ferry].

  • 3.c) We can see [that he becomes big, little by little, from the ferry].

then, those #3 versions seem to be better than the #2 versions. Maybe more people will think that the #3 versions are even more acceptable (than the #2 versions). Maybe the #3 versions are just as acceptable as the #1 versions.

For all versions--#1 and #2 and #3--you might want to re-evaluate them with the word "bigger" replacing "big", and see how those versions sound to your ear (don't be surprised at which ones actually sound better). And then, at the end, replace the 3rd person singular personal pronouns with your original NP "the shrine": the evaluations probably should be the same (I would think). Then you could re-run the diagnostic tool with the versions using the verb "becoming" (instead of "become").

CONCLUSION: It seems that the #1 versions, which use the non-tensed verb form "become", are fully acceptable. As for the other versions (#2 and #3), which use the tensed verb form "become(s)", er, well, it's up to you to evaluate them since my ear is now word-weirded out from reading and re-reading these examples and so, can't be trusted.

ASIDE: I've tried to side-step a lot of topics in this post, in order to shorten my answer. Such topics include: Why did I use only accusative personal pronouns when I used the non-tensed verb forms, and why did I only use nominative case with the tensed verb forms? What about testing to see whether the subordinate clause could be a subjunctive clause? Does the verb "see" have one complement or more than one complement? Are versions #2 and #3 called declarative content clauses? Are the #1 versions called catenative constructions? Etc.

CAVEAT: I might have over-generalized some stuff, and maybe made some "typos" or, er, errors--or maybe mis-worded some stuff. Point them out to me and I might try to correct them. If you want any specific stuff explained in more detail, go ahead and ask in a comment.

ADDED: There is an older thread which has some info that is related to your question:

But that thread, and its answer, deals with non-finite subordinate clauses only (which seem to be in a catenative construction). And so, it does not deal with your issue that involves a finite subordinate clause headed by "becomes" (which in your example is a declarative content clause); nor does that other thread provide an explanation of a type that would be appropriate for your students at their level to learn from (imo) -- though that answer is a good answer for that other thread.

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The sentence is awkward and unlikely to be spoken by a native speaker. However to answer your question, the verb doesn't take -s when its subject is an object. For example:

The dog eats the bone

We watch the dog eat the bone

It's more obvious when using a pronoun

He kicks the ball

We see him kick the ball

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"Growing" sounds less awkward.

  • Grow would certainly be less awkward, but as @TheMathemagician said, growing has a different shade of meaning. – TimLymington Apr 25 '14 at 10:36
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I vote for grow.

"We can see the shine grow, little by little, from the ferry."

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The simplest way to determine whether it's "become" or "becomes" that belongs here is replacing that verb with "to be."

We can see the shrine "is" bigger and bigger from the ferry.

"We can see the shrine "is" bigger and bigger" sounds terrible to my ear.

But:

"We can see the shrine is big" is grammatically correct, since it describes a general truth, i.e. the shrine is big and we can see that.

Now, let's consider "be":

We can see the shrine be bigger and bigger from the ferry.

Sounds better to my ear, though "become" would be a better fit here.

But, how about using the present continuous "being?"

We can see the shrine being bigger and bigger from the ferry.

That one sounds like the blow-by-blow description of an ongoing action.

And so, "becoming" appears as the most descriptive option, but "become" is also a correct alternative here.

  • Would anyone care to explain the downvote here? – Elian Apr 26 '14 at 16:40
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    I didn't down vote, but your answer actually doesn't answer the question. The OP wants to know why you don't use the conjugated form of the verb here. You just say we use it because it sounds more natural; he already knew that. Of course, most of the other answers aren't down voted, and none of them answer the question, either, so I don't know why yours was singled out. – Peter Shor Apr 26 '14 at 16:47
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    @PeterShor Because "I can see the shrine be bigger/become yellow" is descriptive of an ongoing action, whereas "I can see the shrine is big/yellow" is a mere description of a general truth. :-) – Elian Apr 26 '14 at 17:07

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