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What does this sentence mean?

I saw him wash the car

Does it mean "I saw him when he was washing the car"?

33

It doesn't quite mean "I saw him when he was washing the car".

As I have explained elsewhere

Verbs of perception like see, hear, watch, feel take both -ing-form and bare infinitival clauses as complements, but there is a slight difference of aspect between them:

  • The infinitival complement implies that what is perceived is a completed action.

    He watched me play means that he watched until I was finished playing.

  • The -ing-form complement implies that the action continues while it is perceived, but is not necessarily finished during that period.

    He watched me playing means that he watched for some time while I played, but implicates that he stopped some time before I finished.

So "I saw him wash the car" means that I saw him complete his action of washing the car, right down to finishing the job. "I saw him when he was washing the car" is a (very rough) paraphrase of I saw him washing the car.

  • 4
    I think there might be a bit more to it. If person X accuses person Y of never washing the car, I would have no qualms with "But I saw person Y wash the car yesterday!" even if the speaker actually saw only part of the car-washing process. – ruakh Mar 28 '17 at 18:20
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    IME the distinction is mostly one of emphasis. I'd have no qualms about using the bare infinitive even for incomplete actions, if the action was what I perceived and wished to emphasize; "I heard him sing" does not, to me, necessarily imply that I stayed for the entire performance. OTOH, at least to my ear, using the gerund shifts the focus from the action to the subject; like you wrote in your answer, it's almost as if there was an implied "when he/she/it was" between the subject and the gerund, emphasizing the subject and marking the action as secondary. Of course, I'm no native speaker... – Ilmari Karonen Mar 28 '17 at 20:34
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    @amalloy I think that particularly in this sort of context the distinction between gerund and participle is meaningless. CGEL calls the form gerund-participle, and understands him washing the car as a non-finite clause with a 'raised' subject, not an object pronoun modified by a participle phrase. – StoneyB Mar 28 '17 at 21:43
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    @IlmariKaronen It's true that the infinitive is not always strictly perfective: with atelic verbs it conveys a sense very little different (if at all) from that of the ger/ppl clause. But when a verb like sing or wash is used with an object it is usually 'recategorized' as telic. "I heard him sing three Schubert Lieder" implicates that you sat through all three of them. – StoneyB Mar 28 '17 at 22:35
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    "I saw him wash the car" usually implies that you only witnessed a portion of the act, although arguably, to "wash" something requires completion. "I saw him washing the car" strongly implies that you only witnessed a portion of the act. "I watched him wash the car" implies that you watched (perhaps intently) until completion. – Dr. Funk Mar 29 '17 at 14:11
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It could mean a couple different things, depending on emphasis and context. You've listed one possible meaning:

I saw him when he was washing the car.

By including when in this version, this particular sentence seems to emphasis time. In other words:
"When did you see him?"
"I saw him when he was washing the car."

Another possible meaning:

I saw that he washed the car.

This version emphasizes that you know he washed the car because you witnessed the event:
"The car looks dirty – are you sure he washed it?"
"Yes, I saw that he washed the car."

Or, perhaps we want to emphasize who washed the car:

I saw that it was him (and not someone else) who washed the car.

"Somebody washed my car – I wonder of it was Deborah."
"No I saw that it was him (and not Deborah) who washed the car.


When you take a simple sentence like yours, and ask what it means, it's hard to say precisely what it means without surrounding context. The gist of the original sentence is simple:

  • He washed the car
  • You saw him do it

but any other meaning is conveyed more by the situation and the surrounding conversation than it is by the individual words themselves.

  • I would be careful with the translation "I saw that he washed the car", since I might say that if I were looking at the car wash's logs, and didn't see him wash the car. And I would agree with StoneyB that completion is usually strongly implied by "I saw him wash the car". That said, you bring up a good point that it could be used to emphasize who washed the car. – Mark S. Mar 29 '17 at 12:45
  • I completely disagree that it implies completion, as do many other people on that answer – WendyG Apr 19 '18 at 12:35
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You're overcomplicating things. It simply means that he was seen as he was washing the car and it doesn't mean that the act was completed. It only takes a split second of observing this action to be able to make that statement

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