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What is the proper sentence structure when using words like laisser, voir, regarder, écouter, entendre, and sentir?

For example, is "Il regarde peindre les peintres" or "Il regarde les peintres peindre" correct, and why?

Is "Je laisse Pierre partir" or "Je laisse partir Pierre" correct, and why? What is the rule?

  • 1
    All four sentences are correct. If you had used a pronoun instead of a noun, the word order would not be as flexible. In these examples, the pronoun would be located before the first verb: "Il les regarde peindre", and "Je le laisse partir". I have internalized this usage, so I can't spell out what is the rule behind it. Hopefully, someone else can point us it. – Max D Oct 22 '17 at 7:06
  • @MaxD Thank you for making that clear. I am aware that the sentence structure is similar to sentences with "fair" meaning "to cause". Thank you for making it clear that both structures are correct. Which one do you think would be more common though? – CMK Oct 22 '17 at 13:43
  • @MaxD Rather, which one do you think would be more natural? Thank you. – CMK Oct 22 '17 at 14:23
  • Both are natural. Both are common. Enjoy the simplicity in that case :-) – Max D Oct 22 '17 at 18:02
  • @MaxD Okay, cool. Merci beaucoup. – CMK Oct 22 '17 at 20:18
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As Max said in notes, both are correct.

Which one you will use depend on what you want to say. Let's take another example :

Il regarde voler les oiseaux / les oiseaux voler.

In the first case you say that what he's looking at is the flight of the birds. You can suppose that if birds weren't being flying, he would not be interested in looking at them. You can also suppose that if it were not birds but bees, he would be looking their flight too.

In the second one, you say that he is looking at the birds, who are flying. The nuance is that he's interested in the birds. Here you can suppose that he would look at the birds eating with the same interest, but maybe not at bees flying.

As often, it's a nuance, the difference is much lighter than what I said.

  • So in the original question, we look at the painters, or we look at the action of painting by painters. Very subtle, and I suspect some readers would not notice the difference, but now that you point it out, it does make sense to me – Max D Oct 22 '17 at 18:17
  • Thank you. So, in the first example, the infinitive works as a noun, but without "de" to indicate possession? – CMK Oct 22 '17 at 20:22
  • The words peindre les peintres is a verbal group whose function is direct object. There is no idea of possession here. – Emmanuel BRUNO Oct 23 '17 at 7:06

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