Verb of Perception

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In English grammar, a verb of perception is a verb (such as see, watch, look, hear, listen, feel, and taste) that conveys the experience of one of the physical senses. Also called perception verb or perceptual verb.

Distinctions can be drawn between subject-oriented and object-oriented verbs of perception.

Examples and Observations

  • "I discovered that to achieve perfect personal silence all I had to do was to attach myself leechlike to sound. I began to listen to everything. I probably hoped that after I had heard all the sounds, really heard them, and packed them down, deep in my ears, the world would be quiet around me."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "This is the pit of loneliness, in an office on a summer Saturday. I stand at the window and look down at the batteries and batteries of offices across the way, recalling how the thing looks in winter twilight when everything is going full blast, every cell lighted, and how you can see in pantomime the puppets fumbling with their slips of paper (but you don't hear the rustle), see them pick up their phone (but you don't hear the ring), see the noiseless, ceaseless moving about of so many passers of pieces of paper . . .."
    (E.B.White, Here Is New York. Harper, 1949)
  • "Now perchance many sounds & sights only remind me that they once said something to me, and are so by association interesting. . . . I see a skunk on bare garden hill stealing noiselessly away from me, while the moon shines over the pitch pines which send long shadows down the hill . . .. I smell the huckleberry bushes. . . . Now I hear the sound of a bugle in the 'Corner' reminding me of Poetic Wars, a few flourishes & the bugler has gone to rest."
    (Henry David Thoreau, July 11, 1851. A Year in Thoreau's Journal: 1851, ed. by H. Daniel Peck. Penguin, 1993)

    A Markedness Hierarchy

    "In Viberg (1984), a markedness hierarchy is presented for the verbs of perception based on data from approximately 50 languages. In slightly simplified form, this hierarchy can be stated as follows:

    SEE>HEAR>FEEL>{TASTE, SMELL}

    If a language has only one verb of perception, the basic meaning is 'see.' If it has two, the basic meanings are 'see' and 'hear' etc.

    . . . 'See' is the most frequent verb of perception in all eleven European languages in the sample."
    (Åke Viberg, "Crosslinguistic Perspectives on Lexical Organization and Lexical Progression." Progression and Regression in Language: Sociocultural, Neuropsychological and Linguistic Perspectives, ed. by Kenneth Hyltenstam and Åke Viberg. Cambridge University Press, 1993)

    Subject-Oriented and Object-Oriented Verbs of Perception

    "It is necessary to draw a two-way distinction between subject-oriented and object-oriented verbs of perception (Viberg 1983, Harm 2000), for . . . this distinction plays into the expression of evidential meaning.

    "Subject-oriented perception verbs (called 'experience-based' by Viberg) are those verbs whose grammatical subject is the perceiver and they emphasize the perceiver's role in the act of perception. They are transitive verbs, and they can be further sub-divided into agentive and experiencer perception verbs. The subject-oriented agentive perception verbs signify an intended act of perception:

    (2a) Karen listened to the music. . . .
    (3a) Karen smelled the iris with delight.

    So in (2) and (3), Karen intends to listen to the music and she intentionally smells the iris.

    On the other hand, subject-oriented experiencer perception verbs indicate no such volition; instead, they merely describe a non-intended act of perception:

    (4a) Karen heard the music. . . .
    (5a) Karen tasted the garlic in the soup.

    So here in (4) and (5), Karen does not intend to go out of her way to auditorily perceive the music or to gustatorily perceive the garlic in her soup; they are simply acts of perception that she naturally experiences without any volition on her part. . . .

    "The object of perception, rather than the perceiver himself, is the grammatical subject of object-oriented perception verbs (called source-based by Viberg), and the agent of perception is sometimes wholly absent from the clause. These verbs are intransitive. When using an object-oriented perception verb, speakers make an assessment concerning the state of the object of perception, and these verbs are often used evidentially:

    (6a) Karen looks healthy. . . .
    (7a) The cake tastes good.

    The speaker reports on what is perceived here, and neither Karen nor the cake are perceivers."
    (Richard Jason Whitt, "Evidentiality, Polysemy, and the Verbs of Perception in English and German." Linguistic Realization of Evidentiality in European Languages, ed. by Gabriele Diewald and Elena Smirnova. Walter de Gruyter, 2010)

    Usage Note: The Perfect Infinitive After a Verb of Perception

    "The perfect infinitive of verbs--the infinitive of the past, such as 'to have loved' or 'to have eaten'--is often misused. . . . Usually . . . where one may have the instinct to use a perfect infinitive, one ought correctly to use the present. One of the rare legitimate usages is to refer to a completed action after a verb of perception: 'he appears to have broken his leg' or 'she seems to have been lucky.'"
    (Simon Heffer, Strictly English: The Correct Way to Write . . . and Why It Matters. Random House, 2011)