What is ungrammatical about this sentence?

Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill drove fast yesterday.

At the moment I have found out that the main verb,believed, is tensed, and the suboordinate clauses are complements of the verb. However, I am struggling with finding a mistake in this sentence. The only thing I can think of right now is that the word ''that'' is optional in tensed subordinate clause complements, but I am not sure if that's the actual error

  • 1
    I could swear I commented on this exact question yesterday—but the question seems to have since been deleted. As I responded yesterday, the only thing that's actually ungrammatical is drove rather than drive. – Jason Bassford May 31 '18 at 18:23
  • @JasonBassford I didn't see the question yesterday but I found it by googling. Unfortunately, you need 10K rep to be able to see it. The original sentence was in fact, Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill drove fast yesterday. It's a shame the OP deleted it because the question had attracted three reopen votes, and the OP had made some valid observations, using quite sophisticated terminology. If I had known.... – Mari-Lou A May 31 '18 at 18:45
  • Limit it to the last clause :"Nancy saw Bill drove fast yesterday." is ungrammatical. Should be either "Nancy saw Bill drive fast yesterday." or "Nancy saw that Bill drove fast yesterday. – Mitch May 31 '18 at 18:47
  • Also, this kind of question, 'find the error', is off-topic here. It might be OK on English Language Learners, but even there they expect some commentary, some prior research, some interesting question beyond 'fix this for me. – Mitch May 31 '18 at 18:49
  • @Mitch Well, that depends on the meaning of saw there, doesn't it? "I see you fixed the tap then", "I see you drove fast yesterday" "Yes, I saw you drove fast yesterday". Ain't nothing particularly ungrammatical about those. Ain't no that required there at all. – Araucaria May 31 '18 at 22:13

Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill drove fast yesterday.

Whether there is an error in this sentence or not depends on which meaning of see the writer intends to convey. The verb see can take different types of Complement. The most common Complements are: a noun phrase, a content clause (just a normal tensed clause with no gaps in it), or a noun phrase plus non-finite clause:

  1. Nancy saw [Bill]. noun phrase
  2. Nancy saw [that Bill had been there]. content clause
  3. Nancy saw [Bill] [steal the money]. noun phrase plus non-finite clause

In its most basic meaning, the verb see means something like: to view with the eyes. (See definition 2 here). This is the meaning of this verb in examples (1) and (3) above.

Notice, though, that example (2) is different. It means something like to become aware of something or to understand something. In example (2), Nancy did not witness Bill being there, but she understood that fact from what she saw. When the verb see takes a content clause as a Complement, as in example (2), it normally has the become aware of something/understand something type of meaning.

Content clauses in English

Content clauses in English are often introduced by the word that. However, in most situations it's possible to omit this word. In fact, we can always omit that when the clause is a complement of a preceding verb1. So the following pairs of sentences mean exactly the same thing:

  • Nancy saw [that Bill had been there].
  • Nancy saw [Bill had been there].
  • She realised [that she was losing].
  • She realised [she was losing].
  • You insinuated [that I was lying].
  • You insinuated [I was lying].
  • I think [that she loves you].
  • I think [she loves you].

Notice that the verbs in these clauses are all tensed.

See someone do something

The noun phrase plus non-finite clause—or see someone do something—construction is used when the speaker wants to describe what event or situation was directly witnessed by the Subject of the verb see. If the noun phrase is a pronoun, it is accusative, not nominative. Notice as well, importantly, that the verb in the subordinate clause is in the plain form (sometimes called the bare infinitive). It cannot be past tense, and it cannot be present tense2:

  • *I saw him stole the money. [ungrammatical, past tense verb]
  • I saw him steal the money.
  • *I never see him eats. [ungrammatical, present tense verb]
  • I never see him eat.

The Original Poster's sentence

Let's say that Nancy works at a haulage company. Her job, is to check the tachometers on the lorries (a tachometer is a device that measure the speeds that drivers were driving at and how far they drove). Now, let's say that Jack reported Bill for driving too fast yesterday - when, in fact he didn't. Jack's excuse is that it Bob's fault. The reason for this might be that:

  • Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill drove fast yesterday.

Now a different situation. The reason that Jack made the report this time is that Bob and Nancy had been at the pub. Bob subsequently tells Jack that Nancy witnessed Bill speed away from the pub in his lorry. In other words:

  • Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill drive fast yesterday.

Both of these two example sentences are completely grammatical. However, out of context, we might believe that the author of the Original Poster's sentence really intended a meaning like the one in the second example - even though they used the grammar in the first sentence. Why? Well, the author has used the word that at every opportunity, apart from in the very last clause. This might make us think that this is because the following clause is non-tensed and so cannot take the word that. Another reason to think this is that out of all the potential thats in this sentence, the one in the last clause would be the most important because it would make clear what the speaker intended.

However, there is no way of knowing what a speaker of a disembodied sentence was aiming at. Presumably, we must regard a potentially grammatical sentence as grammatical. If this is an example from a test, it is a badly devised one. The test writer could easily have avoided this problem if they had used a pronoun instead of the name Bill.

  • *Jaqueline believed that Brenda said that Nancy saw him drove fast. (ungrammatical)

Or alternatively:

  • *Jaqueline believed that Brenda said that Nancy saw he drive fast. (ungrammatical)

These would have been ungrammatical versions of the following examples:

  • Jaqueline believed that Brenda said that Nancy saw him drive fast.
  • Jaqueline believed that Brenda said that Nancy saw he drove fast.


1. The one exception being when the verb is the verb would: I would that you were here.

2. If the person only saw part of the event in progress we can use a non-finite participle instead of the plain form: Nancy saw Bill stealing the money.

  • 1
    +1, good answer. I don’t think the focus on semantics (witness vs understand) is really necessary, though. It’s perfectly possible and normal for see to mean ‘witness’ with content clauses as well (“I looked in and saw that he was sleeping”). In fact, if we add an extra that to the sentence from the question here to make it unambiguously a content clause, I find it extremely difficult to force saw into meaning ‘understood’ here. Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy observed that Bill drove fast yesterday. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 1 '18 at 15:30
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I get your point, but I think there's something more. Consider "Actually, I saw him steal the money, but I didn't realise that's what he was doing", which seems unremarkable to me, with "Actually, I saw that he was stealing the money, but I didn't realise that's what he was doing". That last example is contradictory for me. I reckon seeing someone do something may involve you apprehending what was happening, but must involve you witenessing it. Conversely seeing that someone did something may involve you witessing it, but must involve you understanding that it happened. – Araucaria Jun 1 '18 at 23:00
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    I agree, though I think that’s more to do with the semantics of the object than the verb. A non-finite clause (whether participial or infinitival) seems semantically to represent a more neutral observation of an action seen ‘externally’, whereas a content clause describes the action more ‘from within’… if that makes sense. The content clause implicitly includes an element that its contents are known in detail. In this example, it describes not just the observable acts involved in stealing the money, but the actual fact that money-stealing is what it is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 1 '18 at 23:12
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Yes, I think that's right. – Araucaria Jun 1 '18 at 23:22

Since the conversation is indirect , the reporting of a past event should be in a continuous tense.

Jack believed that Bob said that Nancy saw Bill driving fast yesterday.

  • 2
    I think driving and drive both work. – Jim May 31 '18 at 18:11
  • Both instances of "that" can, and should for simplicity's sake be omitted. It makes the sentence easier to read and say as "Jack believed Bob said Nancy saw Bill drive fast, yesterday". – WS2 Jun 1 '18 at 11:02

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