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I was writing a short story piece where one person drops something in the water. I got puzzled by the following two choices. Google books seem to be using both of them.

Jena and Mike went outside for fishing. Suddenly, Mike dropped his wallet. As they both watched the wallet float down to the bottom of the water, a big fish came in and gobbled up the wallet.

Or should it be: As they both watched the wallet floating down to the bottom of the water, a big fish came in and gobbled up the wallet.

Conventional wisdom says that the continuous form focuses more on the continuation of the action, while the other doesn't. What difference does it make if we change the first to the second one? Which one seems to flow naturally?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

Main Answer
Since the gobbling happens during the floating down action, and not after the wallet's hit bottom, you want a construction that's continuous. Therefore, floating is better. However, you already have another continuation 'flag', for lack of a better term, in that 'as'. That 'as' puts you in the middle of the action (in this case the watching, I believe), and frees you to use 'float'.

Therefore, either sentence works, and you can choose whichever feels better to you.

Additional points
That said, I think you have more problems than just float/floating. Like the fact they've only stepped outside, they're not over water when he drops the wallet. Unless they're already in some boat, you should replace "went outside" with "went to the _____ (river/lake/pier/boat/etc.)".

Also, it's "to fish, not "for fishing".

You don't need "both" in "as they both watched". "They" already refers to the two of them.

"the water" should be in sentence #2, telling the reader what Mike dropped his wallet into, and removed from sentence #3 since it's understood the bottom refers to the water bottom.

"fish came in": 'to be' and 'to go' verbs are weak, and easily over used. They're not interesting since they are very generic action verbs. I'd suggest replacing "came" with something like "zipped", "dashed", "darted", or even just plain old "swam".

And finally, you don't need to repeat "the wallet" twice in the last sentence. It's repetitive, so replace the second one with "it" -- "gobbled it up". This holds true even if you split that last sentence into two, which is something I would do (but that's my style). If you did that, you could even replace both "the wallet"s with "it"; you can't if it's one sentence because then you'd have a repetitive "it".

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Why not 'for fishing'? Does it mean something different? – Noah Mar 31 '12 at 4:28
Here is the edited version: Jena and Mike went to the river to fish. Suddenly, Mike dropped his wallet into the water. As they watched the wallet sink towards the bottom, a big fish swam and gobbled it up. What do you think? – Noah Mar 31 '12 at 4:37
I can't back this up with a grammar rule, but I feel that "floating" is definitely the only correct option here. If you "watched it float down to the bottom," this implies to me that the action was completed. It made it there. Whereas "you watched it floating down" implies that it was on its way, and does not specify the conclusion of the action. Therefore it suits the action being interrupted by the giant demon fish, whereas "float" is at odds with that unfortunate turn of events. – Aerovistae Mar 31 '12 at 5:29
@Noah: it's not that it means something different; it's just that "they went to fish" is the standard American English idiom. A native speaker simply wouldn't say "they went for fishing." (I can't vouch for other dialects, although I've never heard anyone say "for fishing" in this context.) – Lauren Ipsum Mar 31 '12 at 10:43
@Noah yep, your new edited version looks good to me, except for one thing -- "...a big fish swam..." needs either "up", "by", or "in" after it. I prefer "a big fish swam by", but any one of those works. The "feeling" of what happens with the fish changes a little between those three: "swam by" has the fish enter and leave the scene; "swam in" has the fish enter the scene, and stay - with more fishy action to follow; and "swam up" is like "swam in" except a little more surprise and a little more wallet focused. – Patches Apr 3 '12 at 0:24

Sink/Sinking would be better as a work, because if it floated, it wouldn't be going towards the bottom.

The wallet didn't actually sink to the bottom - it was swallowed before it got there. So they did not in fact watch it "sink to the bottom". They did watch it as it was in the process of doing this, so they watched it "as it was sinking towards the bottom". This has the sense of what was expected to happen, but in the process of this occurring, it was interrupted, and never finished.

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+1 for pointing out that this is the process of "sinking" not "floating." – JLG Mar 30 '12 at 12:41
Should it 'sinking towards' or 'sinking to'? Any difference if switch it from one to the other? – Noah Mar 31 '12 at 4:36
Either works, but I would prefer "towards" as it emphasises the process, and the uncompleted nature of it. – Schroedingers Cat Mar 31 '12 at 9:54

I don't think either one is quite right. To see why, try reversing the events:

As a big fish came in and gobbled up the wallet, they both watched the wallet float down to the bottom of the water.

If each event is really happening "as" the other happens, you would be able to reverse the events and the sentence would still make sense. But this reversal doesn't work very well, so "as" is probably not right.

"As" almost works. There is a kind of simultaneity here: The fish comes in as the wallet floats down. But "to the bottom" suggests that the wallet hits bottom. If that's true, then the fish doesn't gobble it up as they watch it float down.

So your puzzle about float versus floating is probably telling you that something else is wrong with the sentence.

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+1 for a novel way of evaluating the construction and also pointing to an underlying problem – Joe Apr 5 '12 at 23:16

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