Is it correct to say,

James could see his mother look very tired from all the chores.

The options in the test paper were the following:

1) looks 2) look 3) looked 4) had looked

I would have thought 'looking' would be the best answer but there was no such option. I read somewhere on this site that with 'can/could see', only 'looking' can be used. Not 'look'.

  • It's grammatical, but idiomatically I can't think of any context where a native speaker wouldn't prefer looking over look. That wouldn't apply to, say, I see you look very tired, but I find there's there's something slightly off about conjoining references to "actual perception" (see, observe) and "appearance" (look, seem) in one "action". – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '15 at 14:59
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    If 'looking' is not an option provided, can 'looked' be an option? As in, "John could see (that) his mother looked... – Lyng Oct 6 '15 at 15:07
  • Yes, but note that if we replace his mother with a pronoun, there's a syntactic difference between I saw she looked tired / I see she looks tired and I saw her look / looking tired. What context do you have in mind that makes you suggest looking is not an option? – FumbleFingers Oct 6 '15 at 15:14
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    Actually it was MCQ question with options: looks, look, looked and had looked. I would have thought 'looking' would be the best answer but there was no such option. – Lyng Oct 6 '15 at 15:30
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    @FumbleFingers: Ya might need to "unpack" that sentence of yours in your first comment; namely, "I see you look very tired," since it can be read in at least two ways: 1) as is, with the first four words implying an almost habitual perception of the one who sees, and 2) as is, with the words "I see" implying "I can see that you look very tired." It's hard to distinguish between the two ways of reading! It's almost an evanescent moment, or a mini paradigm shift which you think you've caught, but then no . . .! Have I 'splained things adequately? Don – rhetorician Oct 6 '15 at 15:47

It doesn't sound good to me.

A very important issue that has to be kept in mind: there are several possible grammatical structures with the verb "see." I'll discuss three of them. I'm a little rusty on my terminology, but I'll try to describe them as best as I can. If you tell me what grammatical terms and concepts you are familiar with, I can do a better job of tailoring this answer to your question.

With a that-clause (which has its own subject and finite verb)

It seems the test-makers intended for you to analyse the example sentence with a "that"-clause where the "that" is omitted:

James could see [that [his mother __ very tired from all the chores]].

In a structure like this, "his mother" is actually the subject of an embedded clause that has the same structure as an independent sentence would. In other words, the verb form used here has to one that can work in the stand-alone sentence

His mother __ very tired from all the chores.

So you cannot use an infinitive. (With this overall structure.)

This leaves the three finite forms: 1) looks 3) looked 4) had looked. The best choice out of these is "looked" because of the context of "could see".

By the way, this is also the way I would analyse the structure of "I see [that] you look tired." Here, "look" is not the infinitive; it is a finite verb in the present tense that lacks an -s suffix only because the subject (of the verb "look") is the second-person pronoun "you." The reason I say this is the following evidence: if we switch the second-person pronoun to the third-person, I would say "I see [that] he looks tired."

I'll also list example sentences with a pronoun in place of "her mother," which might help because the third-person singular feminine pronoun has distinct forms for subject and object:

James could see she looked very tired from all the chores.

With an object and a participle

James could see his mother looking very tired from all the chores.

James could see her looking very tired from all the chores.

In this sentence, "his mother" is an object and "looking" is a participle. That structure would be grammatical. But as you note, it is not given as an option.

With an object and an infinitive

A third grammatical structure would call for the infinitive "look." (I didn't realize this until after I first posted my answer.) The verb "see" can sometimes be followed by an object and an infinitive, in sentences like "I could see him run." But, that structure doesn't seem right to me here for some reason. Sorry, I guess this part is actually the core of your question!

It does seem to me that the same awkwardness is present when using other copula-like verbs:

James could see she was very tired from all the chores.

is much better than

?James could see her be very tired from all the chores.

I'll try to add more about this. I hope what I have posted so far helps you to avoid confusing these grammatically different uses of the verb "see."

  • Thank you for your comments. I believe the intention of the question is to test the understanding of the infinitive 'look', as in, 'I could see him run.' In this case, 'James could see his mother look very tired from all the chores.' – Lyng Oct 7 '15 at 4:11
  • However, there seems to be an awkwardness about that sentence. Yes, please add more on that. Thanks. – Lyng Oct 7 '15 at 4:30
  • Could the awkwardness be something to do with 'look' tired? In the general usage of 'inert perception' verbs (eg hear, see, perceive, notice, sense), we use the bare infinitive as well as the +ing form. For some cases, in choosing between bare infinitives and +ing forms, we consider momentary/completed or extended actions/actions in progress. In this sentence, 'look' is neither. It is not an 'action' that his mother actively performed but rather a look of tiredness perceived by James. – Lyng Oct 7 '15 at 5:04
  • That sentence effectively means that James saw his mother's tired look and not that he could see his mother momentarily performing an action verb like snap, run, cry etc. Therefore, to test the understanding of infinitives in the context of James perceiving (could see) his mother's physical condition, 'looking' is the best option because his mother's tired look must be an extended one and cannot be momentarily snapped out of. Otherwise, this sentence is better interpreted using 'that' clause. What do you think? – Lyng Oct 7 '15 at 5:12
  • @Lyng: I think I'd agree with you. – herisson Oct 7 '15 at 5:21

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