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How can I understand the use of "be born" in the sentence "But I've witnessed enough people be born with the deck stacked badly against them and go on to incredible success to know it's possible"? Should it be changed to "who were born"?

If "who were born" is used, the original sentence can be separated into these three: "I've witnessed enough people", "Those people were born with the deck stacked badly against them", and "But they went on to incredible success to know it's possible".

And I wonder if its voice has become active.

What are the differences between the passive and active voices in this case, and where is the "to be" in the original sentence? Please provide a clear explanation of the grammatical rules involved.

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    It's a badly written piece by an 'inspirational' 'how to be successful' type of person. Such people are not always great writers of English. I would say that 'be born' implies that he was present at each birth, which is unlikely. Apr 8, 2023 at 14:58
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    yeah it's awful. The big problem is with 'witnessed'. 'Being born' is an event you can witness. 'Going onto success' isn't really an event, it's a process and it doesn't make sense to talk about 'witnessing' it in the same paragraph as you talk about someone being born. At minimum you could go with 'I've known many people who were born with the deck stacked .... who have gone on ....'
    – thelawnet
    Apr 8, 2023 at 15:22
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    yeah it's awful. But I can't easily explain why, given I have no problem with, for example, I've known people [[to] be] born with [two heads, or whatever]. Apr 8, 2023 at 15:41
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    I've known many people born with the deck stacked against them who crashed and burned. This guy is a snake oil salesman. Maybe the bad English is a gullibility filter, like in phishing emails. Apr 8, 2023 at 16:15

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"Be born" is passive.

The active equivalent is "bear", as in "She will bear a daughter". This is grammatical, but pretty rare in ordinary modern English (most people would say "She will have a daughter").

"Witness", like "hear" and "watch", can take either a noun phrase ("I witnessed the ceremony"), an -ing clause ("I witnessed them getting married"), or an infinitive clause without to ("I witnessed them get married").

So grammatically, "I've witnessed enough people be born with the deck stacked badly against them and go on ..." is fine. Whether it makes sense is a different matter, as the commenters have pointed out.

Your emendation "I've witnessed enough people who were born with the deck stacked badly against them and who went on ..." is also grammatical, but it has a different meaning (making arguably even less sense), because the object of "witness" in this sentence is the people not the events of their lives, but "witness" normally refers to events.

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  • I don't understand why my emendation is more nonsensical. It can be separate into these sentences: "I've witnessed enough people", "Those people were born with the deck stacked badly against them", and "But they went on to incredible success to know it's possible". Apr 9, 2023 at 3:18
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    Because "witness people" doesn't make sense. What you witness is something happening, not something that is. That is part of the meaning of "witness" as opposed to "see" or "observe".
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 9, 2023 at 12:51

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