Student Stumper 14: The Grammar of Perception Verbs

QUESTION: Should I say I heard a baby cry or I heard a baby crying?

ANSWER: The answer may be found if we look at the big picture, that is, the whole context. Isn’t it possible for a baby to shout out a single cry, for example, a cry of delight? Isn’t it also possible and very common for a baby to cry longer, for example, until his parents figure out that he isn’t hungry but rather in need of a diaper change? If your ears perceived a single cry of delight, I think it’s correct to say I heard a baby cry. In contrast, if you perceive a baby’s cry and it’s ongoing, it seems more accurate to say I heard a baby crying. My first point is that the choice between the base verb (bare infinitive) and the -ing form following a verb of perception and its direct object is made based on whether we are focusing on the completion (base verb) or process (-ing form) of an action.

Here are additional examples that support the above conclusion:

I saw my friend cross the finish line, and I shouted, “You did it! You won!” (completed action)

Witnesses saw the man enter the building at 12:00 and leave the building at 12:30.  (completed actions)

My face turned red with anger and embarrassment when I heard them talking about me. (process)

I saw the man going in as I was going out. (process)

However, there’s more to consider. For instance, a man might say to his beloved, “I love to hear you laugh.” I don’t feel this is a matter of completion versus process. This is an expression of what he likes. This falls into the category of preferences, habits, and repeated actions. My second point is that the base verb (as opposed to the -ing form) is more appropriate if what is being perceived is a regularly occurring action or if the speaker is using the verb of perception in a general sense.

Here are additional examples to support my second conclusion:

As a child, I got used to hearing my dad sing in the shower. (regularly occurring action)

When was the last time you just relaxed and watched the clouds move across the sky? (general perception)

The exception  to my second conclusion would be a desire to emphasize frequency and possibly annoyance. Example: You say that there’s nothing going on between you and Mary, but I always see you talking to her. Are you just friends or what? This distinction is similar to the one between the simple present and the present progressive tenses: He often sings in the shower. (neutral)  / He’s always singing! Does she ever stop? (complaint)

There could be a third point, one that is supported by the folks at They propose that the choice between the bare infinitive and the -ing form is decided by the speaker’s focus: If the act of perceiving is the focus, we use the bare infinitive: I heard the door open. If the focus is on what is being perceived, then we use the -ing form: I heard the door opening. I would add to this that context is always the deciding factor. We need as much context as possible to choose the more appropriate form. These same two examples about the door opening could be used to support my first point about completion versus process. However, I would agree with the argument of focus if more context is given to suggest that focus is important. For example:

[Situation A]

Father: You came home rather late last night.

Son: Not really. It was around midnight.

Father: Actually, I think it was more like 2 in the morning! I heard you come in. I heard the door open, and when I looked at the clock it was after 2.

[Situation B]

Husband: Huh? Why did you wake me up?

Wife: Shh! I thought I heard the front door opening. Maybe it’s a burglar!



8 Comments Add yours

  1. Rajapk says:

    Marry X-mas and happy new year2010

  2. SUNIL says:


    1. You’re welcome. Thank you for stopping by here. Regards!

  3. Olga says:

    Thank you very much, Jennifer. So, there’s the context of the completed action and the process. I find it reasonable and easy to explain to my students. To be clear I added about the completed action that it happened just a bit of time ago. That means – in the past. (Whereas, the Present Participle is used to stress the action that is going on.) Do you think it is a correct explanation? It’s a little bit different from your formulation.
    One moment I found here in your text is in a dialog of the first situation where father told the time as ‘more like 2’. It seems to me you meant ” more than 2′ . Isn’t it so? Excuse me, please. Any detail is important if I stand facing my students and giving instructions.

    1. Hi Olga. Thank you for considering this post. I’m not sure it would be possible to determine an event happened in the near or distant past based on using the present or past participle. I think we’d have to make use of and adverb, adverb clause, or other time expression to make that clarification:
      – I thought I just heard the door open.
      – I thought I heard the open while I was resting on the couch.
      – I thought I hear the door open and close last night.
      Do you see what I mean?

      In the phrase “more like 2,” the father is correcting the son, saying the time of the son’s arrival home was not around midnight, but rather closer to 2 a.m. = more like 2 a.m.

      I hope that helps. Kind regards!

  4. Sonam says:

    I have a question. I was going through a book, which had practice exercise on ‘Error related to Articles’ . I got confused with a question on error spotting related to articles, which goes like this.

    Q. I (a)/think (b)/ a baby(c)/ is crying(d)/ No error(e)

    I thought the sentence had no error, as it meant that a baby is crying somewhere.
    but according to the book, the error was in (c) a baby, it should be ‘the baby’ instead of a baby. ‘Baby’ is known or particular.

    Which is correct?

    1. Hi Sonam. I see where the test designer(s) are coming from, but I stand with you and argue that the indefinite article is possible. What is needed is more context. Is the speaker a parent and is this an exchange at home? “Honey, I think the baby is crying. Can you check on little James?” But what if there’s an open window on a summer night and a childless couple are hearing things? “Did you hear that? I think a baby is crying.” The response: “No, it sounded more like a cat.”

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