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I came across some interesting dialogue in a tense scene in a novel, Salvation Lost by Peter F Hamilton:

"We'll know exactly what the other [people] are seeing and doing."
"Doing and seeing,"
"What?"
"Better grammar."
"Jesus, man; keep it relevant"

Though this is intended as comic relief, it has me wondering if there is any reason why "doing and seeing" is preferable to the reverse. Is there any actual guideline/grammar or does it just sound better to have the more active verb first?

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    In this "people are coming and going" the reverse "people are going and coming" is not idiomatic, but both are grammatical. Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 12:55
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    In reality, seeing and doing is more common. This may be because you usually see before you do. It's possible Peter Hamilton may have included this dialog to show how hypercritical the second speaker is. Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 13:13
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    Excellent point @PeterShor. However "doing and seeing" sounds way better in the above sentence. Based on that and your observation/evidence, I would posit there is an implicit phrase: "know what they are doing", which is far more common than "know what they are seeing".
    – piojo
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 13:19
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    @piojo: I think you've identified why doing and seeing sounds better in the above sentence. And I wouldn't say it was grammar. Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 13:25
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    I think part of the humor in the dialogue is that the character doesn't actually know what grammar is. Kind of like the old cigarette commercial whose tag line was "What do you want, good grammar or good taste?" -- the difference between "like" and "as" is not grammatical.
    – Barmar
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 15:01

4 Answers 4

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Addressing the general question: 'Is verb order significant when someone is [verb₁]ing and [verb₂]ing?'

There is in some cases.

Firstly, there are situations where '[verb₁] and [verb₂]' is synonymous with '[verb₁] and then [verb₂]' ... there is an anteriority - posteriority relationship, a sequencing that the verb ordering should parallel:

  • He sat down in his favourite armchair and read the newspaper.

  • He sat [down] and read.

  • #He read and sat [down]. [# being used to show unacceptability, not strictly non-grammaticality]

  • #Don't drive and drink.

  • #"Deliver and stand!"

Secondly, there are situations where '[verb₁] and [verb₂]' is a phase structure, and the ordering reflects the 'go shopping' structure:

  • She stood watching. [phase structure, echoing past continuous She was watching]
  • ??She watched standing. [for the unmarked statement; acceptable for emphasis]
  • She stood and watched.
  • #She watched and stood.
  • #He just stared and sat.

Then thirdly, there are situations where '[verb₁] and [verb₂]' is merely a basic simultaneity (or 'in the same period') relationship, or even tautological:

  • He danced and sang all night.
  • He sang and danced all night.

But even here, some pairings are irreversible binomials; they're fixed phrases, and sound outlandish if reversed. Of course, one might do this aiming foe a comic effect, but this is often inappropriate:

  • He likes to pick and choose.
  • #He likes to choose and pick.
  • #He raved and ranted for hours.
  • #She dined and wined them.
  • #We're ready to roll and rock.

Other related structures behave similarly:

  • On Thursday, it's do or die in the final game.
  • #On Tuesday, it's die or do in the final game.

The example here seems to be of the third category, just simultaneity. Google 3-grams for 'seeing and doing' and 'doing and seeing' show that both are used, but the evidence strongly suggests that the former is far more common (ratio about 3 : 1).

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There is no grammatical restriction, but (at least for some pairings) there are idiomatic ones.

The order seems to be mostly arbitrary, but sometimes there may be a semantic element (as in the comments) or even a phonetic element, (akin to the well-known cross-linguistic preference for a short or high vowel to precede a long or low one in varied reduplications like "zigzag" and "ding-dong"): consider "pick and choose", "flip and flop".

This Wikipedia article is mostly not about pairs of verbs, but is still relevant.

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  • There's also Cooper and Ross's "World Order", which has principles (or at least first drafts of them) for what kinds of phrases sound better. (BTW, the annotations are by the authors; this is a xerox of Ross's copy). Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 17:58
  • What's interesting is when different subcultures have different orders. The Wikipedia page says in a footnote that "eggs and bacon" is BrE and "bacon and eggs" is AmE, though I'm not convinced. But in the play and film Shirley Valentine she refers to "chips and egg", which is presumably Liverpool dialect, but to me (Southern England) was entirely wrong.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 20, 2023 at 18:39
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is any reason why "doing and seeing" is preferable to the reverse?

No. It is supposedly funny because it is pedantic - not because it is true.

There is a related phenomenon called "Ablaut Reduplication". From Science ABC:

The rule of ablaut reduplication dictates the order of vowels and consonants in words that are repeated. The first word contains I, and the next word contains either A or O. If there are three words in question, then the first word contains I, the next contains A and the last word contains O. This rule is followed in many English words, such as “flip flop”, “tick tock”, and “hip hop”. It is believed that this rule might be related to the movement of your tongue or the ancient language of the Caucasus.

As you see, it has nothing to do with grammar - it is more psychological.

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I will accept any better answer, but my opinion after the collaborative reasoning in the comments (thanks Weather Vane and Peter Shore) follows: in English, we find sentences most pleasing when the component phrases* are most pleasing (or at least when they are not awkward).

At first blush we notice "seeing and doing" versus "doing and seeing", because that's what the author drew our attention to. But these phrases are both common and acceptable. Looking deeper, the sentence contains the hidden/implied phrase, "know what [they] are seeing". The alternative ordering would yield "know what [they] are doing", which is a much more a more natural and common concept, as well as being more seen in literature.

*"phrase" used here in the colloquial sense

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