English English language Grammar Usage

See Spot run!

Q: I teach ESL at LaGuardia Community College in NY. One of the lessons compares two sentences: “I saw Mary get off the bus” and “I saw Mary getting off the bus.” The lesson plan says “get” here is in the simple present and indicates a longer action than “getting,” the continuous form of the verb. This seems backward. Please help.

A: We’ll answer your larger question first and get to the terminology later.

To begin with, in the first sentence (“I saw Mary get off the bus”), the speaker saw Mary perform a complete action.

But in the second (“I saw Mary getting off the bus”), the speaker saw an act in progress—perhaps only part of it.

That’s probably what the lesson plan means by saying the action in the first sentence is “longer.” By implication, it’s more complete.

But “longer” is a misleading choice of words because the actual length of time involved is irrelevant.

The difference in meaning between the two sentences is a matter of the observer’s  vantage point—is he talking about a completed action or about a process? Is he speaking after the fact, or seemingly placing himself in the midst of the action?

We can see why the description of the first sentence as “longer” seems backward to you. In fact, the “getting off” may be quite stretched out!

Now for the terminology.

(1) “I saw Mary get off the bus.” Here, the phrasal verb “get off” is an infinitive. It is not in the present tense.

The simple infinitive (without “to”) is often used after verbs of perception like “see,” “hear,” and “feel.”

A familiar example from the old “Dick and Jane” readers is “See Spot run,” in which “run” is an infinitive.

We’ve written several times on our blog about simple, or bare, infinitives, including posts in 2010 and 2013.

(2) “I saw Mary getting off the bus.” Here, “getting off” is a present participle. It’s not an example of “the continuous form” (often called the “progressive”).

The two are similar, since both include verbs ending in “-ing.” But a progressive verb has something extra—a form of the verb “be,” as in “am getting off,” “is getting off,” “was getting off,” “are getting off,” “will be getting off,” and so forth.

So in this sentence, “getting off” is not a progressive (or continuous) form but a present participle.

This present participle is part of a noun phrase—“Mary getting off the bus”—that’s the direct object of the verb “saw.” What did the speaker see? “Mary getting off the bus.”

So don’t assume that a verb ending in “-ing” is necessarily in the progressive form.

It could be a present participle or a gerund, verbal forms we’ve written about before, including posts in 2011 and 2012.

In summary, with a verb of perception like “see,” you can talk about completed acts or acts in progress. (We’ll illustrate with a different sentence.)

This example uses a verb in the infinitive to express a completed action: “We saw him go.”

This one uses a present participle to express an act in progress: “We saw him going.”

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