Why a sentence like this sounds wrong to some people: "He witnessed two women walk up to his porch and nab his son's gifts."
A listener named Daphne sent us this sentence from an online news story about package thieves: "Noel Rivera gets a notification on his phone anytime someone comes to his front door, but early in December, in the middle of the day, he witnessed two women walk up to his porch and nab his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts.”
That sentence didn’t sound quite right to her, and the reason was the specific forms of the verbs “walk” and “nab.” If she had been the one writing the story, she would have written, “He witnessed two women walking up to his porch and nabbing his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts.” She says she’s been hearing short forms of verbs often lately, and wonders what’s happening.
In cases like this, you need to be aware of something called the Recency Illusion: the tendency to think that something is new because you started to notice it only recently. That happens a lot, but in this case, it turns out that Daphne is right. Sentences like “He witnessed them nab the gifts” are a relatively recent development, and they are becoming more frequent. And that’s not where the surprises end.
Verbs Take Many Kinds of Complements
Before going further, we need some grammar vocabulary in order to talk about these two structures more easily. In particular, we need to talk about complements. A verb’s complement, you may remember from other episodes, is a phrase that needs to accompany the verb in order to complete its meaning. (In fact, the words “complete" and “complement” come from the same Latin root.) One kind of complement is a direct object of a transitive verb; for example, in the sentence “They stole the packages,” the noun phrase “the packages” is the direct object of “steal,” which makes it a complement of “steal.” (Stole the packages) Another kind of complement is an indirect object; for example, in the sentence “Squiggly sent Fenster a lint roller,” the proper noun “Fenster” is the indirect object, “a lint roller" is the direct object, and they’re both complements of the verb “sent.” Yet another kind of complement is an adjective phrase after a linking verb; for example, in the sentence “Fenster was super-excited,” the adjective phrase “super-excited” is a complement of “was.” He was probably excited about that lint roller.
Verbs can even take verb phrases as complements. To illustrate, let’s take a verb that’s similar to “witness”: the verb “see.” On the one hand, it can be a simple transitive verb, taking just a direct object as a complement, as in “Squiggly saw Aardvark.” “Aardvark” is the direct object in that sentence and the complement for the verb “saw.”
On the other hand, it can also take a verb phrase complement right after that direct object. For example, we might say, “Squiggly saw Aardvark hiding the confetti.” In that sentence, “hiding the confetti” is a verb phrase complement of “saw.” More specifically, it’s a present participial phrase, since it uses the present participle “hiding.”
At this point, it might have occurred to you that there’s another kind of verb phrase complement that “see” can take. Instead of saying, “Squiggly saw Aardvark hiding the confetti,” we could say, “Squiggly saw Aardvark hide the confetti.” This time, instead of a present participial phrase, the second complement is just “hide the confetti.” This kind of verb phrase is called a bare infinitival phrase because of its similarity to the verb phrase “to hide the confetti,” which uses the infinitive “to hide.” The bare infinitival is the same, except that it doesn’t have the word “to.”
So if the verb “see” can take either a present participial complement or a bare infinitival complement, and “witness” means mostly the same thing as “see,” why do sentences like “Squiggly saw Aardvark hide the confetti” sound OK, while “Squiggly witnessed Aardvark hide the confetti” sounds weird—at least to Daphne and me?