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Why Verbs Like 'Witness' Are Weird: Bare Infinitivals

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."

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #675

Bare Infinitival Phrases Are a New Kind of Complement for ‘Witness’

The fact is that two verbs can have similar meanings but not take the same kinds of complements. For example, the verbs “discuss” and “talk” both refer to using spoken language, but “discuss” takes a direct object and “talk” doesn’t. So the sentence “We discussed the problem,” is grammatical, while “We talked the problem,” isn’t. However, it’s also true that if two verbs have similar meanings, some people will assume they do take the same kinds of complements, especially if one of those verbs is rare enough that they don’t hear it used with complements very often. 

This definitely seems to be happening with “witness.” Although the Oxford English Dictionary has the verb “witness” from as far back as the 1300s, it doesn’t have any examples of “witness” with a bare infinitival complement—nothing like “Squiggly witnessed Aardvark hide the confetti.” The earliest example that I’ve been able to find is in the Corpus of Historical American English, in this sentence from “The Trials of the Soldier's Wife,” by Alex St. Clair Abrams, published in 1864: “Do not turn away a miserable mother from your door to witness her child die through destitution.” Another one comes from the poem “Revelling,” by Mary Abigail Dodge, published in 1876:

Heart of my heart, life of my life, 

Here I behold you, beautiful wife; 

Yet I thought I witnessed you, day by day, 

Fade like the roses of summer away.

(“Fade” is the bare infinitival complement there: “I witnessed you fade.”)

But examples like this don’t appear very often. I did a search for any form of the verb “witness” followed by a personal pronoun and then the plain form of a verb—looking for something like “witnessed him walk”—and I found only three examples in the Corpus of Historical American English, which spans 200 years, from the 1810s through the first decade of the 2000s. It was only in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which contains texts from 1990 onward, that the hits started getting more frequent: three in the 1990s, seven in the first decade of the 2000s, and eight in the second decade. For example, here’s a sad one from 2006, about how the death of Australian naturalist Steve Irwin was captured on video: “It's a very hard thing to watch, because you're actually witnessing somebody die.” “Witness” with a bare infinitival complement is still rare, but it’s gaining traction. 

Surprise! Present Participial Phrases Are Also a New Kind of Complement for ‘Witness’

Now for a surprising fact: Not only does the OED not have examples of “witness” taking bare infinitival complements; it doesn’t even have examples of it taking present participial complements! None! No “witnessing somebody die,” no “witnessed them escaping.” As it turns out, present participial complements began to appear pretty close to the same time as “witness” with bare infinitival complements. If, like me, you thought “witness” had always been used this way, then we’ve both been fooled by the opposite of the Recency Illusion: Thinking that the way things have been in our lifetime is the way things always were, a phenomenon known as the shifting baseline.

The first example I found of “witness” with a present participial complement is from the book “Legends of Mexico,” by George Lippard, published in 1847: “It was horrible to see them die, horrible to witness them clutching at each other's throats, ere they sank below….” Examples like this one, with a present participial complement, show a pattern similar to what we find with examples such as “I witnessed you fade away,” with a bare infinitival complement. They’re rare in the Corpus of Historical American English, but become steadily more frequent in the Corpus of Contemporary American English. I found six examples from the 1990s, 16 from the first decade of the 2000s, and 21 from the second decade, which isn’t even over yet! “Witness” with a present participial complement is definitely preferred over “witness” with a bare infinitival, but that’s not how it used to be.

So how was “witness” used before people began to use it with verb phrase complements? They used it as a simple transitive verb, but with a twist. To see what it was, here are the top 10 most common nouns used as direct objects for “witness” in the Corpus of Historical American English: “scene,” “ceremony,” “performance,” “spectacle,” “death,” “effect,” “event,” “change,” “triumph,” and “departure.” Notice that most of these nouns are related to verbs, such as “perform,” “die,” “affect,” and “depart.” Furthermore, the ones that aren’t related to a verb still refer to events: “ceremony,” “spectacle,” “event.” Even the word “scene” refers to events in the examples I found, such as “This was the first time he had witnessed a scene of Moorish warfare.”

Different Complements, Different Event Structures

At this point, I want to share an unsettling realization I came to while researching this topic: Although I agreed with Daphne that the sentence "He witnessed two women walk up to his porch and nab his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts,” sounded odd, it gradually dawned on me that replacing “walk” with “walking” and “nab” with “nabbing” didn’t make it sound much better. For some reason, something about “He witnessed two women walking up to his porch and nabbing his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts,” still didn’t sit right. This was especially puzzling when I found a sentence in the Corpus of Historical American English where “witness” takes no fewer than four participial phrases as complements, and it sounded fine. It’s from Ray Bradbury’s short story “Golden Apples of the Sun,” published in 1953: “Upon the big rock, she witnessed him dancing up and down, naked as the day of his birth, stomping bare feet, smacking his hands on his knees and sucking in and out his white stomach like blowing and deflating a circus balloon.”

The thing that makes these two examples different is that in the Bradbury example, all the witnessed actions are happening at the same time: dancing, stomping, smacking his hands, sucking in his stomach. In contrast, in the package-stealing example, the walking happens first, followed by the nabbing of the gifts. Why should this make a difference? To find out, let’s take our examples with “see.” If I say, “Squiggly saw Aardvark hiding the confetti," that means that at some point, Squiggly saw Aardvark, and at that point, Aardvark was up to no good, hiding the confetti that made such a mess later. You can infer that Squiggly probably didn’t see Aardvark’s entire confetti-hiding operation, because if he had, I would have said “Squiggly saw Aardvark hide the confetti.” In other words, when “see” takes a present participial complement, it’s talking about seeing an event in progress, but when it takes a bare infinitival complement, it’s talking about seeing the entire event. 

The same distinction seems to be in play with “witness.” The sentence “He witnessed two women walking up to his porch and nabbing his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts,” implies that at some moment on the security video, let’s say at 1:35 PM and 20 seconds, two women can be seen walking up and nabbing the gifts. But those two things can’t both be happening at the same exact time. Instead, we need a way to say that Rivera saw the entire two-part event: the walking up, and the nabbing. For this, just like with "Squiggly saw Aardvark hide the confetti,” we want a bare infinitival phrase: “He witnessed two women walk up to his porch and nab his four-year-old son's Christmas gifts.” And now we see that there’s no way to win, because “witness” just doesn’t take bare infinitival complements--at least, not in Daphne’s and my grammar. At least, not yet. 

Complements, Event Structure, and Language Change

To sum up, there seems to be a lingering conflict between the kind of meaning that "witness" conveys, and the kind of complements speakers will accept with it. Up through the 19th century, it typically referred to seeing an event in its entirety: a death, a departure, a triumph. But when it started to take verb phrase complements, following the model of verbs like “see” or “watch,” the more popular complement was the present participial phrase, as in “witness them clutching at each other’s throats.” Inconveniently, this complement is better suited to referring to events seen in progress. Maybe the current increase in “witness” taking bare infinitival complements, as in “I witnessed you fade away like the roses of summer,” is a natural development toward greater consistency in this little corner of our grammar. But witnessing it happen can be disconcerting. 

This piece was written by Neal Whitman, an independent PhD linguist who blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com. You can also find him on Twitter as @LiteralMinded.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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