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I'm having trouble understanding the grammatical structure of the two sentences below.

Shouldn't it be "plays out" instead of "play out" in both of these sentences, since the subject is "what"? As in, "what is playing out(what is happening now) in Ukraine..."

"In the context of the horrors of what we’re seeing play out in Ukraine, the day to day running of a football club pales into insignificance."

What we’re seeing play out there are the somewhat toxic politics of national security, which have swamped countries around the West since 9/11,”

What have I got wrong?

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    Maybe it will help to rephrase the sentence like this: "We are seeing something play out." There is something that is being played out in Ukraine, and most of us see it. "What" is related to "seeing." "What" is the "something" that we are seeing. So play out just describes how we are seeing that thing. We are not seeing it collapse, we are not seeing it expand rapidly, we are simply seeing it play out.
    – Eli Harold
    Mar 23 at 12:17

3 Answers 3

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It's exactly the same construction as this:

  • He walks.
  • I see him walk.

The "walk" is the infinitive, which is following our main verb. An example that makes clear that it's the infinitive is:

  • She is silly.
  • I saw her be silly.

So:

  • What plays out in Ukraine...
  • What we're seeing play out in Ukraine...
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  • Yes, but you should explain why the subordinate verb must be a non-finite form, either a plain form or a gerund-participle (ing) form.
    – BillJ
    Mar 23 at 14:40
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"In the context of the horrors of what we’re seeing play out in Ukraine, the day to day running of a football club pales into insignificance."

we're seeing is followed by a bare form of the verb play out.

Compare:

"In the context of the horrors of what is playing out in Ukraine, the day to day running of a football club pales into insignificance."

That would be third person continuous. And of course, present simple here does not work as present simple is for general statements.

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In the context of the horrors of [what we’re seeing play out in Ukraine], the day to day running of a football club pales into* insignificance.

[What we’re seeing play out there] are the somewhat toxic politics of national security, which have swamped countries around the West since 9/11.

In both examples, the bracketed element is a noun phrase in a 'fused' relative construction where the word "what" (meaning "that which") is simultaneously head of noun phrase and subject of the embedded "play" clause. "See" is a catenative verb here that requires as its complement either an infinitival clause with the plain form verb "play" or a gerund-participial clause with the gerund-participial verb "playing". The author chose the former.

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