Stative Verbs

Dynamic Stative Verbs that are Sometimes in the Progressive Tense

Stative Verbs are verbs that describe a circumstance or state rather than action. They usually refer to ongoing processes or states of being with no easily identifiable start or finish.

In standard English, stative verbs do not usually occur in the progressive tense; but there are some that take exception to this principle. In this study we'll take a look at a few exceptions in which some stative verbs occur in the progressive tenseOpens in new window.

1.  The Stative Verb, Be.

A.  The Stative Meaning of ‘Be’.Be is stative nearly all of the time. When be is stative, it signifies that someone or something has a characteristic or a quality.

Examples include:
  • George is stubborn. He usually doesn’t change his mind.
  • Wendy is rude. She almost never thinks about the way other people feel.
  • Gretchen is friendly. She almost always has a smile for everyone.
  • Afam is a dad. He has three kids.
  • I’m really happy today!
  • Peter and Paul are sick, so they’re staying home today.

B.  Active meaning of ‘Be’ — If we’re talking about the way that someone is acting, then we use be in present progressiveOpens in new window (or another progressive tenseOpens in new window) to show this.

Examples include:
  • George’s being stubborn. He knows that he’s wrong, but he won’t apologize to Alice for forgetting her birthday.
  • (When I say George is being stubborn, I mean that he is acting stubborn now because he won’t apologize. This sentence doesn’t tell us how he is usually; maybe he’s usually stubborn and maybe he isn’t.)
  • Wendy’s eating all the food at the party! She’s being really rude and thoughtless.
  • (When I say Wendy is being rude, I mean that she is acting rude now. This sentence doesn’t tell us how she is usually; maybe she’s usually rude and maybe she isn’t.)
  • Gretchen is being really friendly towards Laura, but she knows she only wants to borrow her car.
  • (When I say Gretchen is being friendly, it means that Gretchen is acting friendly now, but maybe she isn’t really friendly.)
  • Afam used to be wild and crazy when he was young, but now that he has teenage children, he’s really strict. I’m not surprised by his change in attitude; Afam is simply being a dad.
  • (When I say Afam’s being a dad, it means that Afam is acting like a dad; in this sentence, I’m not saying that he is a dad, even though this is true.)

2.  The Stative Verb, Feel. — Feel has a lot of meanings in English, some of which are stative and some of which aren’t. Here are some of the more common ones.

A.  Stative Meaning of Feel. — When feel is used as a linking verb to talk about the tactile characteristics of an object, it’s stative. If you’re sitting there thinking, “What the heck are tactile characteristics?” here’s a simpler (but a little less accurate) rule:

i.  If the subject is a thing, then feel is almost always stative.

Examples include:
  • This blanket feels really soft.
  • This piece of wood feels rough now, but after we sand it will be as smooth as glass.
  • Fred hasn’t shaved today. His face feels like sandpaper.

ii.  When feel means about the same as believe, it’s stative.

Observe the examples below:
  • I feel (believe) that you’re making a big mistake, George.
  • The Dalai Lama feels (believes) that compassion and kindness are the essence of religion.

iii.  A Meaning of Feel that can be either Stative or Active. — When we use feel to talk about someone’s health or mood, then we can use it as a stative verb or an active verb. Both are okay.

Examples include:
  • I feel sick; I need to go home.
  • I’m feeling sick; I need to go home.
Behold! These two sentences mean the same thing.

B.  Active Meaning of Feel. — When we use feel to mean about the same as touch, then it’s an action verb. It uses present progressive and simple present the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • Gretchen is feeling (touching) the water in the swimming pool with her toe.
  • Andy: Why are you feeling (touching) that melon?
    Gretchen: I’m feeling (touching) it to see if it’s ripe.

3.  The Stative Verb, Look.

A.  The Stative Meaning of Look. — When we use look to mean about the same as seem or appear, then it’s usually stative.

Examples include:
  • That house looks (appears) empty.
  • My dog looks (appears) ugly, but he has a heart of gold.

i.  When we use look like to mean about the same as resemble, then look is a stative verb.

What's this?
Examples include:
  • Do you think that I look like (resemble) Tom Cruise?
  • Whales look like (resemble) big fish, but they aren’t really fish. They’re mammals.

ii.  A Meaning of Look that is either Stative or Active. — When we use look to talk about someone’s health or mood, then we can use it as a stative verb or active verb.

Examples include:
  • John looks sick. Maybe he should go home now.
  • John is looking sick. Maybe he should go home now.
Behold! These two sentences mean the same thing.

B.  Active Meanings of Look.Look can have a lot of other meanings and uses. So far as I can tell, in all of the other meanings, look is an active verb. It uses present progressive and simple present the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • John is looking at his watch. Maybe it’s time to go home.
  • I’m looking over a four-leaf clover. (from an old song)
  • Andy is looking forward to his next vacation.
  • Don’t worry. I’m looking out for you.
  • Clark is looking for his keys.

4.  The Stative Verb, See.

A.  Stative Meanings of See. — See is usually stative. It has several meanings that we can’t possibly explore all here, but here are a few common meanings of see: When we are talking about using our eyes, see is stative.

Examples include:
  • Aaahhh! I see a ghost!
  • (I’m using my eyes.)
  • I don’t see John now. He probably went home.
  • (I’m using my eyes.)

Also, when see means about the same as understand, it’s stative. See Examples below:

  • Does Andy see (understand) why Gretchen is mad?
  • I see (understand) what you mean.

B.  Active Meanings of See. — When See means about the same as meet with, then it’s an active verb. It uses present progressiveOpens in new window and >simple presentOpens in new window the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • The doctor’s busy now. He’s seeing (meeting with) a patient.
  • I’m seeing (meeting with) my brother in an hour, but I can talk to you now.

5.  The Stative Verb, Smell.

A.  Stative meaning of smell. — When we use smell to talk about the olfactory characteristics of an object, then it’s a stative verb. Again, if you’re wondering “What in heaven’s name are olfactory characteristics?!” then here’s the simple (but less accurate) rule:

When the subject is a thing, then smell is stative.

Examples include:
  • That bean soup smells delicious!
  • Melvin, your socks smell terrible! Take them off and put them in the laundry right now!
  • Mary’s perfume smells like roses.
  • If your refrigerator smells, you should put in a box of baking soda. The baking soda will absorb the odors.
  • I smell like oil and gasoline because I just finished working on my car. I need to take a shower.
  • (Do you remember that I said the simple rule isn’t 100% accurate? This example doesn’t follow the simple rule because the subject is not a thing. Can you see why this sentence is okay even though it doesn’t follow the simple rule?)

B.  Active meaning of smell. — When we’re talking about someone (or an animal) that is using their nose, then smell is an active verb. It uses present progressiveOpens in new window and simple presentOpens in new window the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • Gretchen: Andy, why are you smelling that t-shirt?
  • Andy: I’m smelling it to find out if it’s clean.

6.  The Stative Verb, Taste.

A.  Stative Meaning of Taste. — If we’re talking about the gustatory characteristics of an object, then taste is stative. If that rule is a little confusing, here’s a much simpler (but a little less precise) rule:

If the subject is food, then taste is stative.

Examples include:
  • This milk tastes sour! We should throw it out.
  • The food at Taco Bell tastes okay, but it doesn’t taste like real Mexican food.
  • Gretchen: Wow! This stuff tastes great! (Here, the stuff is food.)
  • Afam: Hey Andy, what do chocolate-covered grasshoppers taste like?
  • Andy: I don’t know, Afam. I’ve never eaten chocolate-covered grasshoppers.

B.  Active Meaning of Taste. — When we’re talking about someone (or an animal) that is using their tongue to get information, then taste is an active verb. It uses present progressive and simple present the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • The cook is tasting the soup to make sure it’s okay.
  • Afam: Andy! Stop eating my sandwich!
  • Andy: Whoa! Calm down, Fm-boy! I’m not eating your sandwich! I’m just tasting it!

7.  The Stative Verb, Weigh.

A.  Stative meaning of Weigh. — When we tell how much someone, or something weighs, weigh is stative.

Examples include:
  • My cat weighs six pounds.
  • I weigh 150 pounds. Wow!
  • Your book bag weighs a lot!
  • Mary weighs less than she did last year.

B.  Active meanings of weighWeigh is an active verb in all it’s other meanings. It uses present progressive and simple present the same way that most verbs do.

Examples include:
  • Afam is weighing himself in the bathroom.
  • Andy is calling a talk radio program. He’s weighing in on the topic of sewer renovation.
  • I feel sad. All these worries are weighing me down.
  • I’m weighing my alternatives. Maybe I’ll buy a Honda, or maybe I’ll buy a Volvo.

A lot of other stative verbs are sometimes used progressively.

In addition to the exceptions we have observed in the course of this study, there are many more small exceptions to the general rules for using stative and active verbs. Very often, when we see a normally stative verb used in present progressive, the progressive tense emphasizes the feeling of “right now.”

Examples include:
  • Look at Ed’s face! He isn’t believing Mark’s story! (Ed doesn’t believe the story Mark is telling right now.)
  • Are you understanding the homework? (I want to know if you feel that you understand now, at this moment.)
  • Mark: So, how do you like music?
  • Ed: Dude! I’m loving it! (Ed loves the music he’s hearing now.)

Using stative verbs progressively in this way sometimes sounds okay to native speakers, and sometimes it doesn’t. I wish I could give you a single, clear rule, but I don’t think that one exists. The good news is that I can’t think of any times that we need to use normally stative verbs in a progressive tense. In all the cases I can think of, we can also use the verb statively. Consider the following sentences:

  • Look at Ed’s face! He doesn’t believe Mark’s story! (This means the same thing as the sentence above.)
  • Do you understand the homework? (This means the same thing as the sentence above.)
  • Mark: So, how do you like music?
  • Ed: Dude! I love it! (This means the same thing as the sentence above.)