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Here's a well-liked comment under a YouTube video, complimenting the creator:

This man is an absolute joy to watch do literally anything.

Although YouTube likes is not an indicator of grammatical accuracy, it got 600+ likes in 2 hours. The grammar isn't immediately jarring but the consecutive verbs "watch do" stood out to me. I looked up catenative verbs followed by bare infinitives but that wasn't satisfying -- most of the examples refer to a single person, for example

I helped pack her bags.

I can't go watch the movie.

However, in my example, the audience (or at least the commenter) is doing the "watch[ing]", while the YouTuber is "do[ing] literally anything".

Is it or is it not grammatical? Why? If so, how would you make sense of it? If not, how would you rephrase it without changing the meaning?

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    Related.
    – tchrist
    May 22, 2021 at 13:05
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    In your example the catenative verb "watch" requires a gerund-participial clause as complement, not an infinitival.
    – BillJ
    May 22, 2021 at 13:19
  • @BillJ Hmm. Seems fine to me. “It is a joy to watch him do anything” May 22, 2021 at 15:53
  • Watch allows an infinitive complement without to with a Raised subject: I watched him change the tire. This is typical of sense verbs; see and hear work the same way, for instance. In the example sentence, the subject has been deleted by formation of the relative infinitive. May 22, 2021 at 16:04
  • In JL's example, "him" is direct object of "watch" and the understood (semantic) subject of the subordinate complement clause. I don't see there being a raised subject with "watch", which takes an ordinary subject.
    – BillJ
    May 22, 2021 at 19:07

1 Answer 1

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It makes sense (obviously people understood) and is possibly grammatical (maybe - see references below, may just be a lot of sports commentator / web-speak misuse of English).

As far as what's going on, there is a to-infinitival relative clause containing a complex catenative construction where the object (of the complex catenative) is relativized.

Complex Catenatives take the form of:

verb - object - non-finite clause

Where the object of the verb (or NP in the middle if you don't want to call it an object) above is understood as the subject of the non-finite clause (assuming it doesn't include one).

Structure of the noun phrase

an absolute joy - to watch do literally anything (relative clause)

Structure of relative clause

to watch (relativized object: this absolute joy referred to = this man) literally do anything

This is a similar catenative structure to:

We watched the sun go down.

Which could be put into a similar larger structure like:

That sun was a joy to watch go down.

As far as understanding the construction or rephrasing it to something unquestionably grammatical, it would probably best be rearranged as:

To watch this man literally do anything is an absolute joy.

OR

It is an absolute joy to watch this man literally do anything.

I'd move the 'literally' to a position just after 'do' to make it even more natural, but that might change the original too much.

Here are some examples of similar; many more exist, but mostly in sports reporting or blogs.

It was a slightly bizarre scene to watch unfold but, in fairness, it's cool when teams tap into their local culture to craft these retirement gifts. (Fox Sports)

the man is an unstoppable machine, and an inspiring machine to watch compete (Garage Gyms)

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    There's a critical difference in aspect between using a verb in the bare infinitive following a sense verb and using one in its -ing inflection. The infinitive is unmarked, but the other conveys an ongoing activity.
    – tchrist
    May 22, 2021 at 14:25

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