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Concourse 2

Stative and Dynamic verb uses: the essentials



The distinction

There is a fundamental and important distinction in English between stative and dynamic uses of verbs.  In many texts, you will see them referred to as 'dynamic' or 'action' verbs or 'state' or 'event' verbs.  This is misleading because it is not the verb itself that is stative or dynamic, it's the use to which it is put.

think Look at these examples and try to identify which verbs describe an action and which describe a state.
Click here for comments when you have done that.

  1. He's being stupid.
  2. He's angry.
  3. He's reading Tom Sawyer.
  4. It astonishes me.
  5. It belongs to John.
  1. He's growing up.
  2. My foot hurts.
  3. The train arrived on time.
  4. He tapped me on the shoulder.
  5. I love pizza.

The reason why we are being careful in this guide to refer to stative and dynamic uses of verbs rather than stative and dynamic verbs is that almost all verbs which are generally stative can be used dynamically.
Here's the usual list:

Verbs of possession or relations between things
This list will include verbs such as be, appear, consist, contain, cost, have, depend, fit, include, involve, matter, mean, measure, owe, own, possess, seem, weigh and so on.  So we get, e.g.:
    It weighs three pounds (not is weighing)
    The jacket doesn't fit me (not isn't fitting)
Verbs of sensations
This list will include feel, hear, look, see, smell, sound, taste, touch.  So we get, e.g.:
    It tastes delicious (not is tasting)
    That smells awful (not is smelling)
Verbs referring to emotional states
This list includes adore, appreciate, care, desire, dislike, hate, hope, like, love, mind, need, prefer, value, want, wish. So we get, e.g.:
    I appreciate your time (not am appreciating)
    I love the summer (not am loving)
Verbs referring to mental processes and states
This is a longer list and includes agree, astonish, believe, concern, deny, disagree, doubt, expect, flabbergast, forget, imagine, impress, know, please, promise, realise, recognise, remember, satisfy, suppose, surprise, think, understand. So we get, e.g.:
    I deny taking it (not am denying)
    I recognised her at once (not was recognising)

But, of course, many of these verbs are routinely used dynamically so we get, for example:
From the first list:
    I am depending on you
    The work is costing a small fortune
    It's weighing on my mind

From the second list:
    Am I hearing things?
    I'm feeling a bit sick
    She's looking ill

From the third list:
    I'm hating it
    He's loving the attention
    She's hoping it will rain

From the fourth list
    At least we're agreeing about something
    I was imagining something a bit grander

    I'm thinking about taking a few days off
and because the verbs can be used dynamically, it makes little sense to tell learners that some verbs are stative and others dynamic because that can easily lead to error (teacher-induced error, in fact).

By the way, on some websites, you may find the distinction between verbs used dynamically and those used statively to be in the fact that an action or state is either voluntary or involuntary.  So, for example:
    She looks beautiful
is categorised as involuntary so has the simple form, whereas:
    She is looking at the map
is classified as voluntary so has the progressive form.
There is a small amount of sense in this although such an arbitrary division soon breaks down when we consider:
    I think he's an idiot
which is clearly a voluntary state with a stative use and
    The car is sounding strange
which is clearly involuntary but dynamic in use.
The division become seven less helpful when we consider:
    She is looking beautiful
because that is a dynamic use for what may be an involuntary state.
The voluntary-involuntary division is, therefore unsustainable and not recommended as a way of explaining the differences to learners.



What do you notice about the tense forms in these sentences?  Click here when you see it.


Teaching issues

Think about the implication for teaching, make a few notes and then click here for some comments.

You may have thought of others.  Good if you did.



The distinction between stative and dynamic uses is explicable by looking at aspect across languages.  Aspect refers to the way the speaker perceives an event or state in relation to time.  Is it continuous, ongoing, finished etc.?
For example, in many languages there is only one verb for recognise and know.  The distinction between the meanings will often be made by reference to the aspect of the verb: the perfective (finished action) form for the sense of I knew him at once and the imperfective (unfinished state) for the sense of I was acquainted with him.
It is also possible to explain the difference between It costs a lot (continuous, steady-state) and It is costing a lot (progressive action) with reference to aspects of the verb.

Related guides
verbs index for the links to related areas
tense and aspect for the essential guide to two related concepts
what verbs do for a run-down of the functions of verbs
verb types and clause structures for a much more technical guide which includes consideration of stative and dynamic verb use