It sounded like a bomb went off / going off.

Couch Tomato

Senior Member
Russian & Dutch
An exercise from English Grammar in Use:

Complete each sentece using a verb + on or of.

There was a very loud noise. It sounded like a bomb .......... .

According to the book it should be "going off", but I fail to see why I can't say "went off". Does anyone know what they're getting at here?

Thank you in advance.
 
  • entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    In this case there's a clear difference in meaning (and a significant structural difference). When 'like' compares the sound to a noun phrase, 'a bomb going off', it's saying the sound is similar - it's what a bomb going off would sound like (if a bomb were to go off). You don't think a bomb did go off. Two half coconuts knocked together rhymthically sound like a horse clopping along the street. With 'went off', 'like' is now taking an entire clause (It sounded like a bomb went off), and you think that this thing did happen (at least, as far as you can judge by the sound).

    You can make a minimal contrast like this:

    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun being fired. (But I presume it was just a car backfiring.)
    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun was fired. (But I hope I'm wrong - I hope really it was just a car backfiring.)
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ...
    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun being fired. (But I presume it was just a car backfiring.)
    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun was fired. (But I hope I'm wrong - I hope really it was just a car backfiring.)
    I can't see that contrast at all. You could easily swap the comments.

    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun being fired. (But I hope I'm wrong - I hope really it was just a car backfiring.)
    There was a loud noise. It sounded like a gun was fired. (But I presume it was just a car backfiring.)
     

    Couch Tomato

    Senior Member
    Russian & Dutch
    Thank you Biffo and entangledbank.

    In this case there's a clear difference in meaning (and a significant structural difference). When 'like' compares the sound to a noun phrase, 'a bomb going off', it's saying the sound is similar - it's what a bomb going off would sound like (if a bomb were to go off). You don't think a bomb did go off. Two half coconuts knocked together rhymthically sound like a horse clopping along the street. With 'went off', 'like' is now taking an entire clause (It sounded like a bomb went off), and you think that this thing did happen (at least, as far as you can judge by the sound).
    Well, in that case, both are OK, but the one with "went off" is less likely, so I see why they went with "going off".
     

    entangledbank

    Senior Member
    English - South-East England
    Actually now that I think about it, it's not as sharp a difference as I thought: it is possible to use either for either. But I still think that, on the whole, we have a distinction:

    It sounds like X happened -> I think X happened.
    It sounds like X happening -> I don't think X happened.
     
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