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a. I saw the girl singing on the stage.

b. I looked at the girl singing on the stage.

Does (a) mean "I saw the girl who was singing on the stage" or "I saw a scene where the girl was singing on the stage" or either (depending on context)?

Similarly, does (b) mean "I looked at the girl who was singing on the stage" or "I looked at a scene where the girl was singing on the stage" or either (depending on context)?


In case the questions are unclear, the above questions can be rephrased in terms of syntax as follows:

In (a), is singing on the stage complement of the noun girl, thereby constituting the NP the girl singing on the stage, or is it complement of the verb saw, or is it either (depending on context)?

Similarly, in (b), is singing on the stage complement of the noun girl, thereby constituting the NP the girl singing on the stage, or is it complement of the verb looked at, or is it either (depending on context)?

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    I'm not entirely sure of what you mean, but why couldn't the sentence apply to either circumstance, in both cases?
    – WS2
    Mar 31, 2020 at 7:24
  • @WS2 I've added some clarification.
    – listeneva
    Mar 31, 2020 at 7:40

2 Answers 2

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I saw the girl singing on the stage could mean that you witnessed her performance, as in I saw Kenneth Branagh play Hamlet.

It could also mean that she just happened to catch your eye. I saw the girl singing on the stage but was too preoccupied to notice what she was wearing.

In I looked at the girl [who was] singing on the stage, the complement identifies which girl was being looked at.

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  • "I saw the girl singing on the stage" can also involve a defining participial clause: "I saw the girl singing on the stage, but not the one you say was watching from off-stage." [I'd forgotten my hearing aid, which makes the first sentence less unlikely.] Mar 31, 2020 at 9:55
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Your rewrites of each mean pretty much the same thing as the originals. Whether you say it or not, we can assume that if a girl is in a scene, it was a scene you saw or looked at her in.

The only real difference is the definitions of see and look at.

When you say you see something, we usually undertand that you're observing or noticing it for the first time:

I see that you're happy. I saw you drive by my office yesterday. Next time I see a red light, I promise I'll stop.

When you look at something, it's a single action of directing your eyes at something or someone:

Every time I look at you, you seem more worried. I looked at the girl on the stage and noticed her shoes. Look at me when I'm speaking to you. I can't look at him without thinking of last year's Christmas party.

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  • I'm not asking the meaning difference between see and look at, of which I'm well aware. // I have two distinct readings for each of (a) and (b). The two readings are not the same as each other, so I don't understand how the two readings could mean the same thing as the originals.
    – listeneva
    Apr 1, 2020 at 0:33

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