Grammar nonsense: stative verbs

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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13 Responses

  1. pat g says:

    As ye guys well know, Micheal Lewis tackles this thorny issue brilliantly in his book, “The English Verb”. He sees it as a semantic issue: does the person intend to desribe sth that’s changing for them(continous= i’ve been having second thoughts about going.) or desribing sth that’s seen as complete, a fact at that moment (present simple= i think i’ll go) Interestingly, I found out that “loving/liking” is often used “I’m loving/liking this album more and more, it’s growing on me bit by bit”.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Indeed, though as Andrew says above, in this sense, these uses are not in any way special or unusual. The example you give of I’M LOVING THIS LP is a case in point: it’s just a normal continuous usem whereas I LOVE THE NEW YORK DOLLS is something that’s always true, it’s a permanent fact.

      • pat g says:

        very appropriate example. i’d say in your case Hugh, it definitely IS a permanent fact!!!!! The New York Dolls are great

  2. Neil Preston-Lees says:

    I got caught out in class with ‘love’. In the MacDonald’s slogan it really means ‘enjoy’ so can be used in the continuous form I found out (after a bit of Googling). I’ve also noticed that it’s quite trendy among hip young people to overuse present continuous, I guess this is why those clever people in MD’s marketing department chose it and messed about with the spelling and punctuation, to make it sound like ‘teen speak’?

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Neil.
      Thanks for taking the time to write. Appreciated.

      I think ‘love’ is a classic case of a fairly useless rule creating extra problems for all concerned.

      As you note, it’s often more to do with different meanings of words tending towards continuous uses – or not.

      In a sense, though, whether you think I’M LOVIN’ IT means they’re enjoying it – or that they are actually really are loving it, as they say, is irrelevant because I’m loving it simply means at the moment, started not finished – just as It’s raining means at the moment and If I’m understanding you correctly does!

      As for young folk and their ‘overuse’ of the present continuous . . . I’m assuming that by ‘overuse’ you’re simply meaning they use it more than you do, right?

      Policemen, eh? They’re getting younger every year.

      • Neil Preston-Lees says:

        Yes indeed, by overuse I didn’t mean any negative connotation, just something I heard when I taught in an FE college full of apprentices, and then heard my nieces and nephews doing it too, think it’s called being ‘street’ LOL (as they kids would say)

  3. Petusek says:

    I don’t know if my solution is bulletproof (I doubt that), but I use general semantic labels like REPORTING OPINIONS (‘I guess you’re right’ vs. ‘I’m just guessing.’ / ‘I think that’s true.’ vs. ‘Hold on, I’m thinking.’ etc.) and they seem to work fine. Other labels would include PERCEIVING PROPERTIES (i.e. passive, involuntary input vs. active examination, e.g.: ‘I see her now.’ vs. ‘I’m looking at her now.’ / ‘I smell the fish now.’ vs. ‘I’m smelling the fish now.’), DESCRIBING PROPERTIES (‘The soup tastes delicious.’, ‘The fish smells awful.’, but also ‘The beach stretches on and on.” vs. “She’s stretching her arms.’ / ‘The tower rises to an enormous height.’ vs. ‘The balloon is rising quickly.’, the latter two examples showing, I believe, this class is potentially open), AFFILIATION (e.g. by ‘ownership’: ‘I’m having a shower now.’ vs. ‘I have a shower now.’, but also ‘part-whole’ sort of relationships: ‘The soup contains meat.’ vs. ‘They’re just containing the enemy.’), and a couple of others. I always stress it is actually a particular meaning/use rather than a verb (represented by, say, a lemma in learners’ minds) itself that requires/implies stative interpretation, thus usually blocking the continuousness/progressivity that would otherwise normally apply in that particular situation. My students seem to graps rather quickly that once a verb can be assigned one of these lables in a particular situation, it can be interpreted as being ‘stative’. On the other hand, I also remember to warn them that the verb’s ‘stative behaviour’ may be ‘overriden’, e.g. for special emphasis.

    • AndrewWalkley says:

      Thanks for the comment. I have to say I’m not sure I fully follow all of your descriptions! What level do you teach this at? I think there would be a problem with teaching this language to low levels. If you are using L1, I guess that would help, but personally I would prefer to spend time teaching something they might use outside the class. Some of these examples may be helpful from that point of view – it smells awful, it contains meat – but others seem to make use of infrequent meanings or unusual examples (they’re containing the enemy, she’s stretching her arms . Who would you say this second example to and why?).
      I also thinking that saying the meaning of a verb ‘blocks’ the use of the continuous aspect is an odd way of looking at things. To me that suggests somehow it should be continuous, but just because it’s this verb (meaning) it isn’t! When we say ‘the soup contains meat’, it’s reasonable to think of this as neither temporary nor unfinished, but complete and part of the soup’s ‘identity’: hence we use the present simple. There is no need to provide a new category of verb or meaning that is separate from the general rules for the simple tense and progressive aspect.
      Having said that, and as I said in the post, this does not mean my simplified explanation will result in greater accuracy. I basically think that only comes from exposure and interaction over time.

  4. Olga Kovalchuk says:

    to sum it up – don’t tell the students about stative verbs at all, just teach them simple/continuous difference as ‘something that is always true, routine vs something happening now or temporary’? And this rule applies to ALL verbs? Did I get your idea right? It sounds quite revolutionary))) (is sounding?)))

    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Olga –
      Pretty much, yes. It keeps life much simpler and clearer for students!

      There will be the odd verb here and there (know, own, belong) which you may want to say don’t GENERALLY get used in the continuous form, but other than that . . .

      • Olga Kovalchuk says:

        Thanks for answering, for me, as a not-native-speaker, it’s kinda difficult to explain sometimes))) I just FEEL that this is OK to say, and that is not, I’ve always dreamt for a universal rule, which doesn’t obviously exist))) which verbs to mark as ‘odd’ that’s the question))) as the old rule with a lot of exceptions doesn’t help students))

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