Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wendy Saw Joe *Scratched Her Car

Something I shared during this week’s lecture.

Which is correct, (1) or (2)?

(1) Wendy saw Joe scratch her car.
(2) Wendy saw Joe scratched her car.

Most people know that (1) is correct and (2) is wrong. Some teachers, however, are asked so often about (2) that they begin, quite understandably, to believe it might actually be correct. After all, it would seem logical enough that, as saw indicates past tense with the subject Wendy, so also should scratched, with Joe.

The thing to remember here is that, in English, the verb agrees with the subject of the clause (subject–verb agreement). In the main clause, Wendy is the subject, hence saw agrees with it. Scratch cannot, however, agree with Joe since it is the object of the clause. (The clause has the structure S+V+O+Co; Wendy + saw + Joe + scratch her car.) But if Joe became the subject of its own main clause, then the verb would agree with it: Joe scratched the car. Therefore, only a nonfinite (tenseless, agreementless) form of scratch can appear after Joe: either the base form scratch or the –ing participle, scratching.

What, then, is the difference between scratch and scratching?

(3) Wendy saw Joe scratch her car.
(4) Wendy saw Joe scratching her car.

In (3), scratch implies that Joe made a single scratch, and that Wendy witnessed the act from start to finish. By contrast, in (4), scratching implies that the act was ongoing; when Wendy looked, Joe was already engaged in his mischief.

Why, then, is it possible to say (5) but not (6)?

(5) Wendy made her pupils cry.
(6) Wendy made her pupils *crying.

In (5), cry implies that Wendy witnessed the start of the act — indeed, because she was the cause of it. It should be obvious that (6) is impossible since, if Wendy caused her pupils to cry, then they could not already have been crying. The verb made above is called a causative (a person/thing causes another person/thing do something).


Anonymous said...

While its construable as an error in some varieties of english, its not an error in all varieties.

This is somewhat akin to saying 'I didnt see nobody' (i.e. 'I didnt see anybody') is ungrammatical, rather than a living variety of english with its own internal grammatical system.

The Grammar Terrorist said...


I think I have to disagree respectfully on this one. In which varieties of English is object-verb agreement a feature?

Double negatives are quite different from verb inflections. Varieties/dialects of English which differ from Standard English in this regard tend to have less rather than more marking. Good examples are BEV and Norfolk English.

Anonymous said...

so which is correct? (1) or (2)?

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Only (1) is correct. (2) is always wrong, whatever the variety.

David Deterding said...

I think it is useful in this case to consider why there is a bare infinitive (scratch, with no 'to') in the non-finite complement of the verb. In this respect, consider the following:

Wendy saw Joe scratch her car.
Wendy heard Joe scratch her car.
Wendy felt Joe scratch her car.
Wendy let Joe scratch her car.
Wendy made Joe scratch her car.

Wendy wanted Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy expected Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy loved Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy intended Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy compelled Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy helped Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy meant Joe to scratch her car.
Wendy allowed Joe to scratch her car.

Greenbaum and Quirk ("A Student's Grammar of the English Language", Longman, 1990, pp. 351-352) state that this kind of bare infinitive complementation can occur with have, let, make, and some verbs of perception: feel, hear, notice, observe, overhear, see, watch. But they do not offer any explanation of why this happens. I tend to think it is just idiosyncratic: there is no real explanation.

In this respect, compare 'let' with 'allow'. There does not seem to be any difference between:

Wendy let Joe scratch her car.
Wendy allowed Joe to scratch her car.

It is just that 'let' takes a bare infinitive while 'allow' requires the use of 'to'.