Grammar: State Verbs vs. Action Verbs (Review & Exercises)

English Level: Lower-Intermediate, Intermediate

Language focus: Progressive verb tenses and state verbs.

Jump to: Exercises


Introduction: Action Verbs & State (Stative) Verbs

Most verbs are action verbs.

  • John kicked the ball.
  • Chefs cook food.
  • People speak languages.

To kick, to cook, to speak — these are all actions that we do with our bodies and we can see the actions happen.

Some verbs, however, are not actions. They describe a condition or a state.

  • I understand you.
  • She knows the answer.
  • He has a job.

Verbs like this — understand, know, have — are not actions that people do. They are states (conditions), so they are called state verbs.

 

Okay, but why is this important?

State Verbs Are Never Used in the Progressive (Continuous) Tense

That’s right.  We never say the following:

  • I’m understanding you. (wrong – I understand you.)
  • She was knowing the answer. (wrong – She knew the answer.)
  • He is having a job. (wrong – He has a job.)

We cannot use the Present Progressive (is having), Past Progressive (was having), or Future Progressive (will be having) with state verbs. Progressive tenses describe actions happening at a certain time, but because state verbs are not actions, we do use progressive tenses with them.

What Are Some Common State Verbs?

  • agree
  • be
  • believe
  • belong
  • care (about)
  • consist
  • contain
  • depend
  • deserve
  • disagree
  • dislike
  • doubt
  • hate
  • hear
  • imagine
  • include
  • involve
  • know
  • like
  • love
  • mean
  • mind
  • need
  • owe
  • own
  • prefer
  • promise
  • realize
  • recognize
  • remember
  • seem
  • understand
  • want
  • wish

There are more, of course, but these are the most common verbs.

Special Cases: Sense Verbs

Most of the verbs for the senses – see, smell, taste, feel, look —  can be used as both a state verb and an action verb because they each have two different meanings. Let’s look at some examples.

  • I feel sick. (This is a state verb that means ‘I am sick / I think I am sick.’ There is no action here).
  • I am feeling the top of the desk. (This is an action verb that means ‘I am using my hands to touch the desk to see how it feels.’ This is an action.)
  • This smells bad. (= State verb that means ‘this has a bad smell ‘– there is no action here.)
  • I am smelling the flower. (= Action verb that means ‘I am sucking in air through my nose to get the smell of the flower.’)
  • This tastes salty. (= State verb that means ‘it has a salty taste.’)
  • I am tasting the strawberry. (= Action verb that means ‘I am using my mouth and tongue to learn how something tastes.’)

Can you see the difference? It is obvious when you look at an example like The cake tastes delicious. If ‘taste’ were an action, that would mean that the cake (the subject of the sentence) would be tasting something! (That would be impossible!) People taste cakes (which is an action). Cakes taste delicious. This is a state verb the describes the cake.

Another Case: The Verb ‘Think’

The verb think has a state meaning and an action meaning as well. Let’s look at two examples.

  • I think blue is a nice color. (State verb: I believe blue is nice / In my opinion, blue is nice.)
  • I am thinking of the answer. (Action verb: I am using my brain to try to find the answer.)

So, think is a state verb when we use it to give an opinion, but it is an action verb when we describe our brain in action.

There are a few other exceptions as well, such as idioms with the verb have. When have means to possess something, e.g. I have a pen, we can never use the verb in an ~ing (progressive form). But there are some idioms with have that are actions. For example:

  • She’s having a baby. (to have a baby = to give birth)
  • I’m having a party/picnic tomorrow. (to have a party/picnic = to host a party/picnic)
  • We’re having trouble. (to have trouble = to do something with difficulty)
  • I’m having fun / I’m having a good time.. (to have fun / have a good time= to enjoy yourself)

These idioms are all actions.

What About McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It?”

McDonalds loves bad grammar.

(I don’t love it.)

The McDonalds slogan is grammatically wrong because ‘love’ is a state verb. It should be ‘I love it.’

Don’t speak like McDonalds.

 

Practice: State Verbs & Action Verb Exercises

Put the below verbs into the Present Simple or Present Progressive tense.

  1. I (know) the answer.
  2. The child (look) at the TV now.
  3. This cake (taste) delicious.
  4. My father (not/own) a car.
  5. I (wear) a blue sweater today.
  6. Jane (seem) a little angry today.
  7. People (do) yoga in the park across the street right now.
  8. Chan (think) that English is easy.
  9. Lily (love) my brother now.
  10. My sister (not/talk) on the phone at the moment.

 

Exercise #2: Verbs That Are Both State & Action Verbs

  1. John (not/work) now. He (look) outside the window of his office. He can see two people across the street in the park. One is a woman. She (wear) a dress. She (look) like she is 40 years old. The other is a man. He (not/have) any hair. He (seem) angry at the woman. Maybe they (fight). They (not/look) happy.
  2. There are three other people in the park. They (have) a picnic. It looks like they (have) a good time. One man (taste) a piece of chicken. The chicken (look) delicious.  The other people (not/eat). They (play) cards.

 

Exercise #3: More Practice with State & Action Verbs

  1. John (want) to leave his office, but he can’t. He (belong) to a big company, and he (have) a lot of work to do today. He shouldn’t be looking outside the window. He should (think) about his work.
  2. His responsibilities for today (include) writing a report. He (care) about his job. He (not/mind) writing a report, but he (wish) he was outside right now.
  3. John can see his boss. His boss (not/work) either. He (watch) a video on his computer. He (look) happy. He (laugh) a little. His boss often (watch) videos.

 

 

Questions? Find a Mistake? Leave a comment below.

– Written by Matthew Barton (copyright) / Creator of Englishcurrent.com


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3 comments on “Grammar: State Verbs vs. Action Verbs (Review & Exercises)

  1. Rai Munir (Posted on 1-22-2017 at 02:34) Reply

    The best part of the lesson: DON’T SPEAK LIKE McDONALDS:-)

  2. Rai Munir (Posted on 1-22-2017 at 02:38) Reply

    If somebody is eating at McDonald’s, and his/her friend asks: “Do you love it?”
    Can it be the answer: “Yeah, I’m loving it”?

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 1-22-2017 at 11:41) Reply

      You can say that nowadays, yes. But it’s because McDonalds has changed the way we use English. Typically, ‘love’ is not an action verb; it is a feeling.

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