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He watched them run.

He watched as they ran.

What's the exact difference, in terms of the information/scene conveyed? He was watching the runners in both cases. Do they have different connotations? Or is it simply a matter of stylistic choice? Is one more preferred than the other in certain contexts?

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    The difference is subtle. The second one tends to shift your attention to the runners. The first one doesn't. I'd expect the following sentence to be about the runners in the second case.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 18:43
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    The first one is transitive -- it has a direct object, what he watched, namely them running. The second one is intransitive. He watched (object unspecified, though not hard to deduce) at the same time as they ran (also intransitive); two events, simultaneous. Both could describe the same event, but they don't have to. Commented Oct 7, 2021 at 22:21
  • Only the first can be used to imply going to see them run rather than mere simultaneity. The present tense He watches them run. would usually be reserved for time devoted to this watching (cf He watches his son play soccer [every Saturday]; He watches as they run sounds like an example from a basic grammar, or a marked writing style. Commented Nov 7, 2021 at 16:47

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Grammatically, the second sentence, 'He watched as they ran' is describing 2 processes happening simultaneously:

He watched + they ran.

Let's take a similar example to illustrate: He sang as he worked (he sang and worked simultaneously).

But we can infer that 'he' is watching the runners, not simply watching something else.

So, in practice, these two are interchangeable.

Hope that helped!

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The difference is subtle but to my ears the second one implies the running is a disconnected state of the world, as though he just happened to see them while running whereas the first implies them running is somehow connected to him watching. As a stronger example:

"Some men just wanted to watch the world burn." (From Batman the Dark Knight, made past tense to match your example) implies that the men might be involved in causing the world to burn. Whereas if the quote were "Some men just wanted to watch as the world burned" would imply that they stand by doing nothing and not that they caused it to burn.

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In a comment Phil Sweet wrote:

The difference is subtle. The second one tends to shift your attention to the runners. The first one doesn't. I'd expect the following sentence to be about the runners in the second case.

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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

The first one is transitive -- it has a direct object, what he watched, namely them running. The second one is intransitive. He watched (object unspecified, though not hard to deduce) at the same time as they ran (also intransitive); two events, simultaneous. Both could describe the same event, but they don't have to.

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In a comment, Edwin Ashworth wrote:

Only the first can be used to imply going to see them run rather than mere simultaneity. The present tense He watches them run. would usually be reserved for time devoted to this watching (cf He watches his son play soccer [every Saturday]; He watches as they run sounds like an example from a basic grammar, or a marked writing style.

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