Exceptions – it’s not you, it’s me.
A lot of grammar nonsense comes from labels that we use and that we assume are sufficient explanation in themselves to generate their own correct examples. Then, when students attempt to produce examples in accordance with these labels only to find out that they sound ‘strange’ to a teacher’, they then often start asking questions about examples that fail to fit the labels. Teachers then respond in one of three ways: there’s the easy (woolly liberal) ‘Oh, that’s an exception’, the more dogmatic ‘It’s wrong/bad English’, or there’s the extended ‘subtle’ explanation that tries to encompass these more complex uses. Of these three options, our preference would be ‘the exception’, because at least this is less likely to bring about feelings of failure in students. Exceptions are down to the idiosyncracies / curiosities / stupidities of the English language (delete as appropriate). They’re essentially linguistic versions of the ‘it’s-not-you-it’s-me’ break-up line, which may be annoying and disappointing, but at least isn’t laying the blame at your uselessness in the way that the ‘it’s bad English’ response is. Nor will it bore you to death and and ultimately confuse students like the extended explanation almost always does.
Usage above meaning
However, it may be the case that sometimes we’d be better off just avoiding the label in the first place. Students need to accept ambiguity to be successful in language learning (and perhaps in life!). I think one of the key elements of a lexical view of language is that the meanings we give to any pieces of vocabulary or grammar can only ever be partial – and rather than giving more explanation, more ‘meaning’, more labels, we would be better off simply giving more examples of usage (and getting students to read and listen more to language in use).
The case of stative verbs
Take stative verbs. For those of you not familiar with this particular description, ‘stative’ is a label that tends to be given to a group of verbs that (supposedly) don’t use the present continuous tense. So here are a few explanations from coursebooks which shall remain nameless:
- Some verbs express a state – not an activity – and are usually used in the present simple only. For example: like, know, think, agree, understand, love.
- We cannot normally use some verbs (stative verbs) in the continuous form. For example: agree, belong, cost, know, like, love, matter, mean, need, seem, understand, want.
- We don’t use stative verbs (be, have, like, love, hate, want) in the present continuous.
Of course, as you may well be aware, many of these verbs can actually be used (and are used!) in the continuous form. I’m loving it has become incredibly widespread, perhaps thanks to the McDonald’s slogan, but then the slogan no doubt came from advertisers picking up on usage. Here are some other common examples:
- So if I’m understanding this right …
- It’s costing me an arm and a leg!
- I’ve been meaning / wanting… to do it for ages
- I’m thinking of … leaving.
- He’s having … a crisis of confidence.
- Ignore me, I’m just being silly.
So what is a stative verb? The problem of circularity
Part of the problem with using the term ‘stative verbs’ or ‘verbs that express a state’ is that it suggests the verbs are somehow infused with this sense all the time. In fact, at best we can say that some verbs when they express the meaning of a state are not usually expressed with a continuous form. But even then, does the example of cost above contradict that? Or is it not a state here? Which brings us to the rather bigger problem of what the hell a ‘state’ is anyway?
Think about your Facebook status: job, relationship, friends, likes etc. Certainly, we would normally only say the following in the present simple:
- I’m unemployed.
- I have a girlfriend.
- I hate my brother.
- I love swimming.
But the following could also be expressions of these same ‘states’:
- I’m not working.
- I’m seeing someone.
- I’m not speaking to my brother ever again.
- I’m really loving my swimming.
So why are these verbs not seen as stative? Because they are used in the continuous form which is a mark of being non-stative! And so we enter a rather circular and pointless version of grammar rules – rather than a generative one. We don’t use stative verbs with the present continuous because stative verbs are verbs which aren’t used in the present continuous!
Do we actually need a new rule?
Interestingly, one of the grammar explanations quoted above, also gives the following example as an example which is different to the explanation about stative verbs:
- Frazer comes from Scotland
- NOT Frazer is coming from Scotland.
The first thing to say about this is that the example is clearly not wrong if seen in terms of the verb come (there is no further explanation of why it’s wrong). The first sentence explains the permanent fact of his birthplace/nationality, the second could be telling us where he is travelling from. Come therefore can be used to express a ‘state’, but I’ve never seen it listed as a stative verb! Why not? Essentially, it’s because the way come is used here is in keeping with the normal meanings which we attach to the present simple and the present continuous. However, isn’t the same true of other ‘stative’ verb?. Rather like we discussed with reported speech, we seem to have actually created a new category of rule where none is needed. If we take the idea that the present simple expresses ideas about now that we consider permanent or complete, or facts about ourselves, compared to continuous forms which are essentially temporary and unfinished or in progress, then both the ‘stative’ and the continuous use of all the verbs so far mentioned fit these meanings more or less without creating any new categories for students to worry about.
Present simple for present and complete actions/states
I think part of the issue here is also that we forget the ‘present and complete’ use of the present simple as in ‘He takes on Stones . . . He shoots and scores’. Neither the past simple nor the present continuous fit here when commentating on events you are watching and the same is true when we say things like I know / I understand / I agree. They happen at this moment, but we see them as complete in the moment.
It won’t solve everything, but maybe it’s one less problem!
This is not to say, of course, that our meanings for the present simple and present continuous are unambiguous and will never lead to student ‘errors’. However, we would suggest that more explanation and extended lists of meanings will not actually help. In the end, usage that corresponds with what the vast majority of people say can only come from learners experiencing the language of the vast majority of people! In terms of study and learning, students are also probably better off trying to expand the meanings they are able to make in English through learning more vocabulary.