smell something burn / Why incorrect?


Senior Member
Hello everyone,

My grammar book says that "I smell something burn." is incorrect. I should use "burning." Why is this? Why can I not use "burn" here, while I can say, "I saw her enter/entering the theater."? I would like to know the reason.

Thanks in advance.
  • JamesM

    Senior Member
    This is a very good question! I'm sure there's a much better answer than what I have to offer, something with a foundation in grammar, but here's a layman's concept of the difference.

    "burning" is immediate. "burn" is a process. "I saw the house burning" can happen in a glance. "I saw the house burn" takes place over time.

    Smelling something is an immediate experience. There isn't really a distinction between the beginning of something burning, the middle of something burning, and the last few moments of something burning to a sense of smell (at least not mine.) I can watch something burn from beginning to end, but my sense of smell can only report that it is burning at the moment or that it was burnt in the past.

    In other worrds, "I watch her cook my dinner" means that you see all her actions as she cooks your dinner. "I smell her cook my dinner" just doesn't quite make sense. "I can smell someone cooking dinner", which is probably a nightmare grammatically, would be fine in casual speech.

    That's the best I can do with it. I'm looking forward to reading the other answers your receive.


    Senior Member
    I can watch something burn from beginning to end, but my sense of smell can only report that it is burning at the moment or that it was burnt in the past.
    Thank you very much, JamesM. I think you answered my question beautifully. So it's the verb "see" or "smell" that makes the difference. I can see the process, but cannot smell the process.


    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I see someone enter/entering the house.

    I smell something burn/burning in the kitchen.

    How very peculiar!
    I like JamesM's explanation.
    With I see someone enter ... I see the entire "enter" process from start to finish.

    With I smell something burn ... the concept of smelling something "burn" from start to finish is alien.

    Is this a matter of logic rather than grammar?
    I see something fall/falling in the kitchen.


    Senior Member
    English - England
    This is an interesting question. It seems that (at least) with verbs of perception, the participle has an imperfective sense, and the infinitive a perfective sense.
    - I saw / heard it burn implies that I witnessed the completion of the burning.
    - I saw / heard it burning implies only that I witnessed some stage of the burning process.
    I suppose this shouldn't be so surprising, as the participle has an imperfective sense in the continuous tenses It is burning.

    As Panjandrum says, it is the process of burning that makes a smell, not the completion of the burning: hence I can smell it burning is more usual. I can smell it burn implies that the completion of the burning has a special smell of its own, the sweet smell of successful destruction perhaps.

    Julia Fadillah

    New Member
    English (US)
    Verbs of perception - FEEL, HEAR, NOTICE, OBSERVE, SEE, SMELL, WATCH - may be followed by gerunds, however, never infinitives.

    I smell something burning.
    --> I smell something while it was burning.

    Julia Fadillah

    New Member
    English (US)
    This is not right. These verbs are followed by infinitives (without to) as well as gerunds. The posts above try to explain the difference in nuance between the gerund and the infinitive in such cases.
    Infinitives are (always) to + verb1 whereas bare infinitives are the verbs without to. The perception verbs may also be followed by the base form of the verb (bare infinitive without the infinitive marker "to").
    Compare these examples:
    I saw him dancing. -- I saw him while he was dancing.
    I saw him dance. -- I saw the the entire course of dancing.

    So the sentence "I smell something burn" is incorrect. The sentence "I smell something burning" is correct because you smell something during the process of burning.


    I don't think "I smelt something burn" is wrong. When you say "I saw him dance", I think it does not definitely mean that you saw his dancing in entirety.

    It seems to me that the difference in using either "dance" or "dancing" is more of your emphasis on nuance when you say it than of your conscious calculation of any time duration. I think when you use "dancing", you'd want to convey a more vivid scene of his dancing (plucking out the past memory into a present reality as if it were happening now??). When you use "dance", you just describe what happened in the past.


    Senior Member
    But there is a difference between the sense of sight and the sense of smell, at least in English, Insuhk..
    Well, of course there is. It is a biological thing, I believe - you can see the whole process of something happening. However, how can you smell the whole process of something happening? How would you determine, without seeing, all the separate stages of a stump burning - catching fire, then the fire engulfing the whole of it, then the smouldering remains? Is human olfaction capable of 'perceiving' in such detail?
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