smell something burn

Akasaka

Senior Member
Japanese
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.
     

    Akasaka

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    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.
     

    panjandrum

    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.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    This is an interesting question. It seems that (at least) with verbs of perception, the participle has an imperfective http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperfective_aspect 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.
     

    Insuhk

    Member
    Korean
    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.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    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?
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    OK. Let me come up with a bit unpleasant but realistic example. Would it work?

    I smelled him fart/burp.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Does not sound right to me, Ivan. You probably smelled his fart, not the whole process :) If it wasn't one of those vicious silent farts, you heard him fart, perhaps. :)
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    Does not sound right to me, Ivan. You probably smelled his fart, not the whole process :) If it wasn't one of those vicious silent farts, you heard him fart, perhaps. :)
    It can go both ways. Some random exmaples

    The cops grin widened as he said, “You haven't smelled him fart yet.”
    I've had him I've never once heard or smelled him fart.
    I was with this man for 10 years and never heard/smelled him fart.

    PS: How long does it have to last so that one can fail to smell a fart in your opinion?
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    It does not, indeed.

    Looking at the grammar itself, if that matters at all, puts me off it. The main clause is:
    I smelled him.
    Fine, you smelled him. The rest describes what he was doing. He himself did not emit any unusual smell while farting. He would have smelled the same if he was farting, singing or having lunch. It is the fart that smells, not him. It is almost as senseless to me as 'I smelled him thinking' :)
     

    ain'ttranslationfun?

    Senior Member
    US English
    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.

    As regards "see him cross the street" vs. "see him crossing the street", though, I agree that the former indicates that the speaker saw the whole action of his going fom one side of the street to the other and the later the speaker saw him for only part of the time he was going from one side of the street to the other.

    EDIT: Off-topic part of post removed.
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    It does not, indeed.

    If we apply that logic then I heard him sing. is also wrong. Because technically you hear the sound not him. Or I saw him cooking dinner. Those are his arms and hands that cooked the dinner not him.

    He himself did not emit any unusual smell while farting.
    Really? Who did it then? I beg your pardon, but it sounds as a rejection of a persons butt... as if the butt has nothing to do with the person. Somehow, I can't put up with it...
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    You can hear the action singing. The action itself makes the noise.
    You can hear the action farting. The action itself makes a noise.
    You cannot smell the action farting. The action itself has no odor. The gas released by the action has an odor.
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    You can hear the action singing. The action itself makes the noise.
    You can hear the action farting. The action itself makes a noise.
    You cannot smell the action farting. The action itself has no odor. The gas released by the action has an odor.
    Yeah... But you don't hear the action you hear the noise/sound.

    Who does the action of farting a man or gas? I think a man. So, you smell someone fart. I am still not convinced. But that's OK.

    Here is another one:

    I smelled the gas stink. (does it work?)
     
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    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Yeah... But you don't hear the action you hear the noise/sound.
    The action produces the noise. The vibration as the gas passes through "area" is the noise. When the action stops, the noise stops.
    The gas smells. The gas continues to smell after the action stops. The person walks away and the gas still smells in that place. It is not attached to the person.
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    The action produces the noise. The vibration as the gas passes through "area" is the noise. When the action stops, the noise stops.
    The gas smells. The gas continues to smell after the action stops. The person walks away and the gas still smells in that place. It is not attached to the person.
    OK. But you don't say "I heard the action sing" but you say "I heard him sing". The sounds can last even when the action is stopped. For examples in a cave. Well... not so easy.
     

    Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    OK. But you don't say "I heard the action sing" but you say "I heard him sing". The sounds can last even when the action is stopped. For examples in a cave. Well... not so easy.
    Then you're hearing an echo, not the action of his singing.
    It's really not something that can be analyzed by logic in any case. While I think my explanation fits, the real reason, as usual, is "We don't say it that way."
     

    Ivan_I

    Banned
    Russian
    I smelled the metal scrape along the concrete.
    Maybe we've gone "nose blind" to him and can't smell him stink the place out.
     
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