1.They filmed the thief. (past tense--finite)

2.They saw the thief filmed in the act. (past participle--non finite)

Does "filmed" in the second sentence have a past or a present meaning relative to the reference time of the main verb in the sentence, "saw"? Although "filmed" as a non-finite form is classified as being past or perfect as well as passive, I believe that here, it can also convey the meaning of the present passive.

In other words, I believe that the second sentence could be validly rewritten as either

2a. They saw the thief, he having been filmed in the act.

2b. They saw the thief being filmed in the act.

Normally, the present passive participle must be specified by adding the auxiliary verb "being" in front of the past participle. Why is it that it is possible to omit the word "being" in sentence 2. while still allowing for that same present interpretation?

  • 1
    Why was this downvoted? I believe OP has asked a worthwhile question re. the tense of the non-finite form -- does "filmed" refer to an action occurring at the same time as or before that of the main verb saw? Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 18:21
  • Thank you very much
    – user57928
    Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 18:24
  • 3
    They saw the thief being filmed in the act is a very peculiar thing to say. Did they know the person doing the filming? Was the person with the camera aware that "they" were watching him (and/or the thief) while he filmed the thief? The interactions between the three parties involved in the example are just too weirdly distracting for me to consider the actual syntax. Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 19:37
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    The sentence (#2) cannot really be nailed down time-wise. It depends on what they're looking at: the thief stealing as cameras nearby film the theft, or the playback of the film. +1 to FumbleFingers for "three parties". Commented Sep 7, 2023 at 0:15
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    Commented Sep 14, 2023 at 17:31

1 Answer 1


Okay, let’s analyze both of these sentences.

They filmed the thief.

This is a simple declarative sentence, with the usual word order: subject (They), main verb (filmed), and direct object (the thief). You were right: the verb filmed is past and finite. (The act of filming began and finished in the past.) Other terms you might have heard for this verb form are past indicative and preterite.

They saw the thief filmed in the act.

This is a more complex sentence. The subject still comes first (they), then the main verb (saw). The direct object is now a subordinate clause (the thief filmed in the act). Let’s take a closer look at that last part.

As you observed, filmed is not a verb here. The clause actually uses what’s called the zero copula. The verb is really a form of be, but we leave it unsaid. This sentence is actually short for something like:

They saw the thief [who was] filmed in the act.


They saw the thief [being] filmed in the act.

You can normally tell the meaning from context. For example:

She saw the thief filmed in the act and called the police. She testified at the trial. (Past continuous: she called the police while the filming was in progress, and testified after the filming was over.)

Three weeks later, he saw the thief filmed in the act, at the supermarket. They didn’t make eye contact. (What your text calls past finite: the filming had finished three weeks before he saw the thief.)

So, if filmed isn’t a verb here, what is it? In “the thief [who was] filmed in the act,” filmed modifies the noun thief, so it functions as an adjective. This adjective is then modified by the adverbial phrase, “in the act.” We call this type of adjective, formed from a verb, a past participle.

I said there’s another way to read the sentence: “the thief [being] filmed.” This is the passive voice; you can normally turn a sentence like “They filmed the thief” into “The thief was filmed [by them].” You can do this with any past participle (unless there’s some weird exception I forgot). Let’s simplify a bit and look at the sentence: “The thief was being filmed by them.” This changes the aspect from past finite to past continuous/past progressive. (Which can also be called non-finite.) For example, “The thief was being filmed by them when the police arrived,” means they were still continuing to film the thief/the filming was then in progress.

So I think, when your text described filmed in the second sentence as “non-finite,” the author was reading it as “They saw the thief [being] filmed in the act.” That’s a valid reading, but not the only possible thing it could mean. Filmed is definitely a past participle here, not the verb in this clause. The thief was not filming anything. You can't tell from the structure of the sentence alone: you could say, “I saw [that] Peter Jackson filmed in New Zealand.” But, in this context, “*The thief films in the act,“ does not make sense, so you can rule that out.

Regular English verbs use the -ed suffix for both preterite and past participle, but there are some irregular ones that have different forms, such as take/took/taken. There is a pattern to some of these that makes them easier to memorize: strong verbs change the vowel in the past tense and often have a past participle that ends in -en.

Most verbs have past participles. (Some helper verbs don’t.) A few English words were originally past participles of verbs that are no longer used. Disgruntled is more-or-less just an ordinary adjective today, and you won’t find the verb it originally came from in most dictionaries. Numb is a very interesting example: it came from a verb that disappeared from the language centuries ago, and later, we made a new verb from it that means something different. So, numb started out as a past particple, became an ordinary adjective, then a verb as well, and now that verb has its own past participle, numbed.

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