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Stative verbs in English

Stative verbs in English

Many Nigerians are familiar with the definition of a verb as “an action word or a doing word”. This correct but limited definition is one of the problems of the formalist approach to language teaching, which enables learners to cram the definitions of concepts and memorise lines of lessons even when they are unable to identify and/or use such words in contexts. This piece will establish that a verb is not just an action word or a doing word. Words that show states (conditions) and processes are also verbs. For instance, if a verb were simply an action word or a doing word, that would mean that there is no verb in the sentence “The boy is happy” because the sentence does not contain an action verb. Precisely, the verb “is” in that sentence describes the state of the noun “boy”. Such verbs that do not depict actions, but describe the state or condition of a noun, are called stative verbs. The remainder of this piece will discuss the different categories of stative verbs, their functions and their limitations in usage.

At this juncture, the readership should be informed that verbs that portray actions are regarded as dynamic verbs. Commonplace examples are go, eat, dance, sleep, sit. Owing to their dynamic nature, such verbs can be used in the progressive tenses, as in:

They have been dancing for thirty minutes (present perfect progressive tense).

He was eating while you knocked on the door (past progressive tense).

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By striking contrast, stative or state verbs cannot be represented in the progressive or continuous tenses because they do not portray actions which can be demonstrated. Broadly speaking, stative verbs describe ownership (have, owe, own, boast, belong, possess), emotions (hate, love, like dislike), perceptions (see, hear, think, look, smell, taste) and thoughts (remember, suspect, understand, believe). The implication of the foregoing is that stative verbs should be used in the present tense, not the present progressive tense; in the past tense, not the past progressive tense; in the future tense, not the future progressive tense; in the present perfect tense, not the present perfect progressive tense; and so forth. Consider the following examples.

Non-standard: I was owing him £5 last year (past progressive tense).

Standard: I owed him £5 last year (past tense).

Non-standard: The university will be boasting cutting-edge facilities (future progressive tense).

Standard: The university will boast cutting-edge facilities (future tense).

Non-standard: I have been suspecting him for a while (present perfect progressive tense).

Standard: I have suspected him for a while (present perfect tense).

Non-standard: Are you seeing the children crossing the road (present progressive tense)?

Standard: Can you see the children crossing the road (present tense)?

Other noteworthy examples of the usage of stative verbs are:

Non-standard: Why were the children having stomach ache?

Standard: Why did the children have stomach ache?

Non-standard: I am wishing she could do the dishes.

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Standard: I wish she could do the dishes.

Non-standard: He was loving his wife before her death.

Standard: He loved his wife before her death.

Non-standard: We are believing Joseph’s confession.

Standard: We believe Joseph’s confession.

Non-standard: Those men are looking Chinese.

Standard: Those men look Chinese.

More than all of this, the general reader should note that it is feasible for a stative verb to be applied in the progressive tenses if it has a dynamic meaning, as in:

Non-standard: I am having a cold.

Standard: I have a cold.

Standard: I am having breakfast.

You will discover that, in the third sentence, “have” is correctly used in the progressive tense because it represents the dynamic verb “eat”. Similarly, we have:

Non-standard: We are seeing three men on the doorstep.

Standard: We can see three men on the doorstep.

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Standard: We are seeing (as in, “visiting”) Uncle Sam tomorrow.

Thus, in the last sentence, “see” is appropriately deployed in the continuous tense because it is synonymous with the dynamic verb “visit”.

By extension, it is very possible for one’s ignorance of the usage of stative verbs to culminate with a breakdown in communication. For instance, if a man tells a well-versed English user that, “I am seeing Victoria,” chances are that the English expert could think the other speaker and Victoria are in a romantic relationship and do spend quality time together. This is because that is what the sentence originally means. When “see” is used in the context of romance, it is dynamic. Hence, if the speaker is deploying “see” in the context of his eyes as a sense organ, he should simply say, “I can see Victoria.”

Even in contemporary standard English, stative verbs still exist and serve their purposes well. In effect, readers who desire to up the ante of their communication skills should take their cue from this piece and practise using stative verbs with clockwork precision.