Who saw him die? (C. T. Onions, An advanced English Syntax)

C. T. Onions say the infinitive with sense verb denoting ‘in the act of dying’. Is it meaning the infinitive denote progressive meaning? Then what is the difference between the case and this: who saw him dying?

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    I think it might sound strange, and I think others can explain this better than me. But when I read Who saw him die, I pictured someone seeing him in his moment of dying. However, when I read who saw him dying, I pictured someone seeing him dying slowly maybe days, months, or even years before he will actually die. Jan 1, 2014 at 13:55
  • @DamkerngT. I think you are, in general, correct, though context may recategorize in any given instance. Jan 1, 2014 at 23:59

2 Answers 2



I think the problem is that the sentence "he is dying" can mean many different things:

He has cancer, and he has only months to live.
He was just shot, and he has only minutes to live.
He's not breathing, and he has only seconds to live.

In fact, if someone says "So-and-so is dying," a common follow-up question might be, "How long does he have?"

Example Sentence

In the sentence "Who saw him die?", the word "die" is being used in the sense of "to stop living". In other words, the question is asking who witnessed the moment of death. It could be interpreted to mean "Who saw him in the act of dying?" in the literal sense of "the act of dying" as a near-instantaneous process.

If I were to ask, "Who saw him dying?", I would be asking who saw the person while they were dying, even if they weren't there at the moment they died.

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    Quite true. If I say, "I can remember my uncle dying from cancer," that statement – by itself – is inherently ambiguous. It could mean I saw him losing weight during occasional visits over a period of several months, or it could mean I was at his deathbed on the day he died. Without any further context, it could mean either of those, or even both.
    – J.R.
    Jan 1, 2014 at 16:55
  • "die" that means "in the act of dying" (in 'she saw him die') has two implications, so are you saying, I think. (1) she was near him at the gate of his death, (2) he's dead when this sentence was said. Is it what you're saying?
    – Listenever
    Jan 1, 2014 at 23:57
  • @Listenever Yes, there's definitely an implication that the "he" in the sentence is dead when the statement is spoken.
    – godel9
    Jan 2, 2014 at 0:04

Keep in mind that Onions wrote more than a century ago, before the notion of aspect or complementation entered English grammatical study.

When Onions writes that “These Infinitives are best regarded as adverbial = ‘a-dying’, etc., i.e., ‘in (the act of) dying’, etc.” he did not have the grammatical equipment to understand the participle dying as either an ‘object-oriented complement’ or a recategorization of a telic verb as an activity verb.

With respect to your specific question, he is not distinguishing the participle from the infinitive, but employing the participle as an approximation to the sense of the infinitive. I have no doubt that he thinks of dying here in its telic aspect and that he means: “Who saw him complete the act of passing from life?”

That said, I think he’s entirely wrong; die is not ‘adverbial’ but the verb heading the non-finite clause HE DIE which is the complement of the verb SEE.

  • I’ve guessed that Onions might have said, this sentence “She saw him die” mean “She saw him while he was dying” - “die” acts like a supplementive or absolute phrase. But you’re saying that in “She saw / him die”, ‘him die’ denotes subject and verb. And the infinitive means ‘tellic’ or terminative meaning, while ‘she saw him dying’ is imperfective. Am I understood right?
    – Listenever
    Jan 1, 2014 at 23:39
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    @Listenever I think you read both me and Onions correctly. She saw him *dying might bear Onions' construction, but She saw him die does not, in my opinion. Jan 1, 2014 at 23:58

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