Should I use "that (pronouns) were" instead of "(pronoun)" in the following example?

John, who was in a blind fit of rage when he found out that the organization had killed his parents, saw them dead (in his imagination).

This sounds unnatural, but these participles seem absolutely normal.

Even though I told him to stop, I still see him eating.

When I was sneaking through the streets, I saw him sleeping.

Are these correct? When is it necessary to put "that ____ were"?

  • I can think of a few examples with significant differences in meaning, but I'm having trouble coming up with a general rule to explain why they have different meanings. It seems to me that the "that X were Y-ing" version focuses attention on the action of X a bit more than "X Y-ing" does. The second version brings my attention to the object itself, with the action as a description. Consider: "He knew better than to stay up so late, but John could see that the sun was rising." vs "...John could see the sun rising." In the first, the sun's rising was seen, in the second, the sun is the focus. Feb 18, 2015 at 5:05
  • Are your eating and sleeping examples meant to be also "in your imagination", or real? Also, is there a reason you iput a change of tense in the eating example but not in the sleeping one? As for "dead", that's a little different, in that it's a terminal condition—there is no progressive tense! Feb 18, 2015 at 7:54

2 Answers 2


Let's discuss the differences between several possible alternatives, starting with:

John, who was in a blind fit of rage when he found out that the organization had killed his parents...

  • saw them dead in his mind

That's a bit awkward for what you're trying to say. Consider an example with the opposite - "John's mother was overjoyed to see him alive after coming back from war." What you probably want to say here is "imagined the sight of them dead", or "had a vision of them being dead". Consider also this example: "Steve's mother would always worry whenever he jumped on his motorcycle. No matter how hard she tried to repel bad thoughts, she always saw him dead in a ditch somewhere." Given that John's parents have already been killed and he knows it, the situation is no longer hypothetical like in that example, which is why the sentence sounds odd to me.

  • saw that they were dead

That's talking about a witnessed event in the past, and would imply that John actually saw his dead parents in real life, and didn't just imagine the sight of it.

  • RuslanD -- Interesting. You are (quite reasonably) interpreting the passage as meaning: "John imagined his parents' dead bodies." I interpreted the passage as meaning: "John imagined the organization members' dead bodies."
    – Jasper
    Dec 3, 2015 at 18:46
  • I find the sentence extremely ambiguous as to who John is imagining dead. Absent the relative clause in commas, it just says "John saw them dead." It's probably not how I would have phrased the sentence regardless of who it was supposed to be that John was imagining.
    – stangdon
    Dec 3, 2015 at 19:16

To see (see/saw/seen) has a couple of different meanings

  • The most common meaning is "to be in one's sight" - I saw the park.

  • A less common meaning is "to assist in doing" or "to make sure an activity was completed" - I saw our guest out the door.

Since the sentence talks about rage, a someone could think that "saw them dead" refers to an action John took in revenge, per the second meaning - especially if "in his imagination" is left out.

John, who was in a blind fit of rage when he found out that the organization had killed his parents, saw them dead (in his imagination).

The ambiguity is removed when you say "saw that they were dead" instead, because the object of saw is now a clause that is self-contained in meaning, and not just a dangling word which could be attached to something earlier in the sentence.

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