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I know using the bare infinitive after verbs such as hear, see, watch, etc. conveys a different meaning from using the present participle (verb+ing):

  • I watched him climbing over the fence ( Climbing wasn't finished at the moment of speaking)
  • I watched him climb over the fence ( Climbing was finished at the moment of speaking)

I noticed the majority of the Grammar books use past tense to explain the aforementioned difference. Personally, I think that is quite rational because the bare infinitive implies a completed or finished occurrence. This means that event belongs to the past. However, I have a problem conceiving similar sentences in the present tense. For example:

The questions is:

If the bare infinitive implies a completed action, then why should we use the present tense to talk about that event? (the event is in the past).

We can say that:

An uneasy feeling came over me as I watched him walk towards the revolving doors


Added info 1

If you think my "climbing" examples are irrelevant, you can check Cambridge Advanced Grammar In Use, page 60, Unit 30, Section D or just check this link


Added info 2

My question is from the logical point of view. I think the act of "seeing" is instantly. Therefore, it is not rational to say "see" a "completed process" but, "saw" a "completed process".

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    "I watched him climb over the fence (Climbing was finished at the moment of speaking)" - That's not a distinction I would make. One could just as easily say "As I watched him climb over the fence..." which obviously implies that the climbing is not finished.
    – stangdon
    Sep 1, 2016 at 17:05
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    There is no implication with the bare infinitive that the observed action has been completed. I watched him climb the stone arch freestyle ... until he lost his grip and fell into the river below. Sep 1, 2016 at 18:02
  • FWIW, it's not really about finished vs. incomplete. It's more like a whole view vs. a zoomed view. Sep 1, 2016 at 19:00
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    Don't believe everything you read. "I saw him smash the bottle" is understood to be a completed action only because semantically the smashing of a bottle occurs suddenly. The bare infinitive does not impart that meaning; it merely is a better choice than the progressive when the verb refers to an action which happens instantaneously. "I watched him popping the soap-bubble" would be odd. We can say "I watched the phlebotomist draw blood until I could not look any longer" without there being any implication that the vials have been filled. Sep 1, 2016 at 23:15
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    @Cardinal I am convinced that your real understanding of the subtle distinction here revolves around your meaning when you say you have trouble conceiving similar sentences in the present. What verb in your first language do you mean by conceive in English? Sep 2, 2016 at 4:57

1 Answer 1

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The difference between bare infinitive and gerund (-ing) is one of aspect, not tense. The bare infinitive looks at an action as a signal point in time whereas the gerund looks at it as a process (which is currently happening).

I watched him climbing over the fence

This means at the moment you watched him, the act of climbing was still in progress. Compared to:

I watched him climb over the fence

This view the action as a signal point without a beginning or end. This distinction is typically called the imperfective vs perfective aspect.

The bare infinitive doesn't imply a completed action, but rather a complete action without further structure or detail.

Thus,

An uneasy feeling came over me as I watched him walk towards the revolving doors

means the uneasy feeling occurred as the speaker watched the act of walking in its entirety.

For many circumstances, the differences between the bare infinitive and the gerund will be slight.

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  • Thanks for the answer, but what does "the two" refer to? the present and past? what about this: "I saw him smash the bottle" Doesn't imply a finished event?
    – Cardinal
    Sep 1, 2016 at 19:43
  • the two = bare infinitive vs gerund. "I saw him smash the bottle" only represents a finished event because saw is past. "I will see him smash the bottle" doesn't represent a finished event, but it represents a completed total event.
    – eques
    Sep 1, 2016 at 19:47
  • Ok, what do you think about an action which has completed? Isn't it finished ?
    – Cardinal
    Sep 1, 2016 at 19:54
  • I meant "but it represents a complete total event" not "completed". For example, "I heard him singing a song" vs. "I heard him sing a song" The first one implies hearing an act of singing by him, but does not imply that I heard the entire song. It also implies the singing is in progress; it started before I heard and continued after. The latter sentence suggests I heard the entire song.
    – eques
    Sep 1, 2016 at 19:59
  • Fine, I think my problem revolves around the definition of the "complete". I think, considering an event, "complete" means something has a beginning and a finishing.
    – Cardinal
    Sep 1, 2016 at 20:04

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