I'm looking at this sentence, and I wonder how to label the grammar, specifically the italic part.

I want to see the robot drill through the ice.

In typical present tense, the verb would conjugate as "drills".

... the robot drills ...

So why is it "drill" here? And what is this grammar called?

It's confusing that many similar sentences all use different verb forms (conjugated, or not, or infinitive, or gerund) in the second noun+verb part.

I want to see that the robot drills ...
I want to see if the robot drills ...
I want the robot drilling ...
I want the robot to drill ...

That last one seems ambiguous. It could be that I want the robot because I want to drill something. Or it could be that I my "want" is about the robot itself. Ie, I want that the robot drill. Anyway, I'm digressing.

What is going on in that first sentence? If it's easy to also relate it to the others sentences, I'm curious, but maybe it's better to be narrowly focused in a question on this forum.

(Also: sorry, I don't know how to title this question well. If you have advice on this, I'm happy to edit the title.)

  • 1
    The robot is the subject of the infinitive complement clause verb phrase drill the ice. Following sense verbs (see, watch, hear, feel, etc.) you can have an infinitive complement clause without to. You can also have a gerund complement clause after sense verbs: I want to see the robot drilling the ice means the same thing. But if you change the verb, you change the meaning and the grammar. Mar 20, 2021 at 22:33
  • Thanks. The lack of the "to" throwing me off. I'd like to find a good book(s) on English grammar to learn this stuff. I'm a native speaker, so I do it instinctively, but I'm studying other languages, and I'd like to compare and contrast the grammar structures, and understand from an intellectual angle what it is that I do instinctively. If you have any recommendations, I'd appreciate it.
    – Rob N
    Mar 20, 2021 at 23:54
  • McCawley 1998 is the best single English syntax book. It doesn't cover phonology or morphology but you know those already. However, while it's clearly written, it's not simple at all. It's a textbook for a year-long college course, about the same difficulty level as (though much more fun than) learning DiffEQ, or Renaissance Non-Dramatic, or Quant and Qual. English syntax is complicated. It will help if you learn some linguistics; syntax didn't appear from nothing. Anything by David Crystal is helpful. Mar 21, 2021 at 1:45
  • It's called a catenative construction, where “want” and “see” are catenative verbs taking non-finite clauses as complement. The second verb “see” has the infinitival clause “drill through the ice” as its catenative complement. Note that "the robot drill through the ice" is not a constituent -- the NP “the robot” is the understood subject of the infinitival clause, but syntactically it's the object of “see” and "drill through the ice" is a non-finite clause functioning as catenative complement of "see". In the complement clause "drill" is predicator, head of the VP "drill through the ice".
    – BillJ
    Mar 21, 2021 at 9:34
  • 1
    I wouldn't recommend McCawley. It's fine for students of transformational grammar, but for straightforward traditional descriptive grammar Huddleston & Pullum's award-winning The Cambridge Grammar Of The English Language is the finest available, probably the finest grammar ever written.
    – BillJ
    Mar 21, 2021 at 9:36

1 Answer 1


I want to see the robot drill through the ice.

drill is a verb here. It means you want to see the act of the robot drilling through the ice.

  • 1
    Actually, "drill" could be a noun. The sentence is ambiguous.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 20, 2021 at 22:36
  • This doesn’t answer the question though.
    – Jim
    Mar 20, 2021 at 22:54

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