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The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary gives, for the word witness, an example sentence as follows:

(Original Version)

Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy.

To me, the sentence should be rephrased as follows:

(My Version)

Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— as witnessed by the low incidence of heart disease in Italy.

So, I have several questions:

  • What is the subject of witness in the sentence?

  • Why isn't witness in the third-person singular form?

  • Can we take it as an imperative sentence?

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  • 3
    Please do not answer in comments, however trivial the question seems (although I disagree that this is). If you have an answer, write an answer.
    – Andrew Leach
    Apr 25 at 9:19
  • 1
    I'd argue that as witnessed by would be a malapropism. A more appropriate phrase would be as evidenced by. Apr 27 at 16:18
  • Before we get near Answers, three things: My guess is that 'Why isn't "witness" the third-person singular form…' here means 'Why isn't "witness" in…' or 'Why doesn't "witness" take/use…' In a Question this profound, I suggest even such tiny details matter and we should not be left to guess what's what. Then, is this about "witness" against "witnesses"? Then, in the example, what exactly constitutes a sentence? May 1 at 20:57

5 Answers 5

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To witness something is to observe it. The sentence could be paraphrased

Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— observe (as evidence) the low incidence of heart disease in Italy.

"Look at the low incidence .." is another, less formal paraphrase.

In many contexts "witness", "observe" and "look at" have slightly different meanings, but here they are equivalent.

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    BEHOLD the low incidence of heart disease in Italy!
    – Exal
    Apr 25 at 18:27
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I think this usage is an imperative, of the suggesting type. This dictionary agrees:
Merriam-Webster witness

verb 4b : to take note of
our grammar—witness our verb system—is a marvel of flexibility, variety, and exactitude— Charlton Laird

AHD witness

2b b. To consider as an example. Often used in the imperative: Even a widespread species can go extinct. Witness the passenger pigeon.

If you substitute the word note for the word witness in the OP example, the meaning and the feeling of the sentence are about the same.

Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— note the low incidence of heart disease in Italy.

One might interpret the usage differently, as if it were a subjunctive form, followed by its subject. : -witness the low incidence of heart disease =
-[let] the low incidence of heart disease [be] witness

Or one might call it an idiom. But in any case, the usage is valid - witness its commonness.

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    I think it's worth adding that not only is the original correct (using this answer's analysis) but that the OP's suggested re-phrasing is incorrect. It's the reader that's being asked to witness something; the "low incidence of heart disease" does not witness anything. If you wanted to rephrase in that way you could say something like "as suggested by...".
    – Rupe
    Apr 25 at 16:04
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    @Rupe "as witnessed by" is synonymous to "as evidenced by" in this context, so it's still okay. One of the meaning of witness: "be a sign or proof of (something); serve as evidence. "the mid-1980s saw an intensification of interest in community care, as witnessed by the publication of four major reports" (4th definition in Oxford)
    – justhalf
    Apr 26 at 1:57
  • @Rupe: The OP’s rephrasing may be factually misleading (arguably), but it’s grammatically absolutely fine and idiomatic.
    – PLL
    Apr 28 at 9:09
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The sentence Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy. is an example of parataxis: two short complete sentences that are combined without any conjunction. Without changing anything, you could actually rewrite this sentence like so:

[Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy.] [Witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy.]

The first sentence Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy is a normal declarative sentence, but more importantly, the second sentence Witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy is indeed an imperative sentence (as @Jack-oflaherty's answer says). As such, it doesn't have a subject, and like in all English imperatives, the verb occurs in its base form without any inflectional suffix.

This answers your questions:

  1. What is the subject of witness in the sentence?

Authentic Italian cooking is the subject of the first sentence Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy. The sentence Witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy doesn't have a subject, as English imperative sentences are subjectless.

  1. Why isn't witness in the third-person singular form?

In English, imperative sentences are not marked for number, person, or tense, but feature the verb in its bare form (here: witness, not witnesses).

  1. Can we take it as an imperative sentence?

Yes, absolutely – but only the second part witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy, not the first part Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy. This is a declarative sentence.

By the way, your rephrasing changes the grammatical structure from parataxis to hypotaxis, or more conventionally, to a complex sentence with a subordinate clause:

[Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy [as witnessed by the low incidence of heart disease in Italy] ].

This type of subordinate clause (sometimes called passive-participle clauses) is also subjectless, and it uses the past participle form of the verb (as seen, for instance, in the sentence Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy as eaten by the natives in Italy, where the past tense form ate would not be possible).

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  • Hello, Schmuddi. Your explanation implies that the definition of parataxis is 'two short complete sentences that are combined without any conjunction'. The Wikipedia article says that parataxis is a writing style utilising such constructs. Apr 26 at 18:53
  • @EdwinAshworth: Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article doesn't feature a definition of the linguistic use of the term. I'll see if I can find a free website with a better definition.
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 27 at 5:56
  • "English imperative sentences are subjectless." Not always. "George, open the door!", "Smith, answer the phone!" "Team Five, get that test working today!" "Battalion, Halt!", "Mr Slater, put her on the starboard tack!" all are imperatives with subjects. It is treue that the subject is often omitted or implied in an imperative construction. Apr 27 at 18:09
  • @DavidSiegel: That's an interesting idea. I'm not really aware of any grammar that classifies these as subjects, and I think it would be very difficult to provide formal arguments that supported that – the usual stuff like replacement by pronouns in subject case, subject-verb agreement or pre-verbal position don't really work. Do you have a reference where I can read up on that?
    – Schmuddi
    Apr 28 at 13:45
  • @Schmuddi I don't have any formal source at hand. Given the default Subject-verb-object order of an English sentence, it seems obvious. In "George gave me that phone" the subject is clearly "George". I think that in the roughly parallel sentence "George fix that phone" the subject is obviously also "George". If "Georfe isn't the subject, then what is it, grammatically? Apr 28 at 16:32
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Change the sentence from "Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— witness the low incidence of heart disease in Italy" to "Authentic Italian cooking is very healthy —— look at the the low incidence of heart disease in Italy"; that should make clear what happened.

"Witness" is both a noun for a person who observed something, and a verb describing the act of observing something. In this case, "witness" is the imperative form of "to witness".

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Witness in this sentence is a command form of the verb "to witness". You (the reader) are the subject of the verb. The conjugation is different as a result. I think it's technically subjunctive even though the differences are less visible in English.

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