Student Stumper 38: The Grammar of Perception Verbs (Part 2)

Q: If you say, “Listen to Mona sing,” how is the word sing functioning in that sentence?

A: It took some thinking and digging for me to decide on an answer. I had originally addressed verbs of perception in Student Stumper 14, but one thing I did not focus on in that post was labeling the verb forms that follow the direct object. In that earlier discussion, I explored only the difference in meaning of two similar structures: I saw the man enter the building. [completed action] and I saw the man entering the building.  [action in progress] I feel the discussion was productive, and the difference became clearer to me in the process of writing.

However, I won’t shy away from revisiting a tricky topic in order to understand it more fully. A recent question on my community forum prompted me to think more about the grammatical functions of each word in those structures. I suppose it would be easier to recognize “sing” and “enter” in our examples not as the base form of the verb, but as a bare infinitive. Once we start talking about infinitives, we can then jump into the category of complements. So if you help me (to) figure this out, we can discover similarities between infinitives as object complements and bare infinitives as object complements.

Greenbaum and Quick discuss this pattern with perceptual verbs (as well as causative verbs) under the heading Direct object and bare infinitive clause (351).  When you say that you see someone do something or hear something happen, those are examples of what they call complex-transitive complementation.  In other words, “see” and “hear” take an object, and that direct object is followed by a complement.  The words “do” and “happen” are bare infinitives that function as the complements.

Biber, Conrad, and Leech agree with the label bare infinitive clause (329). They note that the pattern verb + noun phrase + bare infinitive clause is more frequent in conversation and fiction, though infinitive clauses are more common in general.

As for sentences, like “I heard the song sung by Mona” and “I heard Mona singing that song,” I believe we’re dealing with present and past participles also functioning as complements. Agreed? Greenbaum and Quick cite such structures as additional examples of complex-transitive complementation (352).

Whew! That wasn’t so bad, was it? I’ve known other topics to give more trouble. (See the final example of an infinitive complement clause?)


Biber D. et al. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Essex: Pearson Education Limited.

Greenbaum S. and Quirk R. (1995). A student’s grammar of the English language. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. M Amin says:

    Thank you very much Jennifer, this is very good.
    I have one question about “I saw the man enter the building. [completed action] and I saw the man entering the building. [action in progress]”
    I know that after make, help the verb is in base form, is it right?
    If yes, Is the verb ‘saw’ is one of them and the function of ‘enter’ in the first sentence is a verb, right?
    Thank very much, I wish I would be a good ESL like you.

    1. Hello,

      Are you asking about direct objects after the verb make? As in make someone do something?
      “Make” is a causative verb, so it follows that same pattern discussed in the post. Some use the term “double object,” but in the context of this discussion, I think we should label “someone” as the direct object and “do” as the complement (bare infinitive as the direct object complement). Agreed?

      I hope that makes sense.

  2. Marco-I says:

    Thank you Jennifer, for your explanation.
    Now it’s even clearer!

    1. So glad to hear that, Marco! Thanks for checking out this post.

  3. Jay Mishra says:

    Is the sentence “I heard the song sung by Mona.” grammatically correct? If yes, which structure is used in it? Can you explain, please?

    1. I = subject
      heard = main verb
      the song = object of ‘heard’
      sung = past participle that refers back to ‘the song’/ object complement
      by Mona = prepositional phrase that acts like an adverb – modifies ‘sung’

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