My grammar book says that if you saw the complete action you use do/get/drive: "I saw him fall off the wall." Otherwise you use -ing: "I saw him standing at the bus stop."

A native American speaker said that he doesn't agree with that and there is no difference whether you use -ing or not. He said that particularly in these situations I can use either verb without affecting the meaning:

—How do you know I took the money? —I know it because I saw you take / taking it.

—How did the woman fall? —I don't know. I didn't see her fall / falling.

He couldn't come up with a situation where this rule makes sense. But I tried to come up with such situation and he said that in this case it can be true.

I saw him eat the whole plate of pasta.

He ate everything that was on the plate. I saw him finish it.

I saw him eating the whole plate of pasta.

I saw how he was eating from a plate full of pasta. But I'm not sure whether he ate everything or not. I didn't see him finish it.

Please comment on what has been said. And give your opinion about this rule.

2 Answers 2


Both you and your informant are correct in different circumstances.

The difference lies in the character of the verb involved. With a telic verb—one which includes an end, a specific goal or point of completion—there is a marked difference between the simple form and the progressive form: the progressive form marks the action as incomplete. Eat, fall, take are telic verbs.

With an atelic verb, which does not include an end, there is no practical difference. Stand, run, think are ordinarily atelic verbs (although in some circumstances they may be ‘recategorized’).

See the tag-wiki entry on aspect.

  • I'd say that there is a clear difference for stand, at least: "I saw him stand" = he changed from not-upright to upright while I watched, while "I saw him standing" = he was upright for the entire time that i watched him.
    – Hellion
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:16
  • 1
    @Hellion Right, stand has two senses, and "I saw him stand" would ordinarily be understood in the telic inchoative sense. But "He stood on the corner, and I saw him stand there" is unambiguously atelic. Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 17:22
  • Each of your answer is an institute in itself. Hats off @StoneyB. I always wondered what word to use which should not mean informer but should mean someone who informs! Informant is the word!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 6:35
  • Do my first two examples (take/taking, fall/falling) sound different to you with different verbal forms?
    – mosceo
    Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 20:34
  • @Graduate Ordinarily we would say "I saw him take it" to describe my witnessing a theft, but "I saw him tak<b>ing</b> and shouted at him to stop" would probably mean I interrupted the theft, and perhaps prevented it. Commented Feb 22, 2014 at 20:49

Welll...I have to play devil's advocate. Yesterday, this guy was sitting on the corner bench. He got up and stood there for a while. I know, because I saw him do it. Isn't that also described by your sentence? I see what you are working on, but it's very difficult to make it unambiguous IMHO.

  • Sorry, I meant to add that as a comment.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 22:20

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