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 Not Used in the Progressive (Continuous) Tense
That's right. We do say the following:
m understandingyou. (wrong - I understand you.)
was knowingthe answer. (wrong - She knew the answer.)
is havinga 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 not use progressive tenses with them.
What Are Some Common State Verbs?
- care (about)
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). When we say 'the cake tastes delicious', the verb taste is a state verb that 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.
Another Case: BE Verb + adjective (Dynamic Adjectives)
You cannot say: "I am being tall." or "The car is being red".
However, some adjectives can be expressed as an action. These adjectives are called dynamic adjectives. For example, it's possible to say, "You are being annoying" or "He's being silly" in the present continuous to describe how someone is acting right now. Some dynamic adjectives include the following:
(Note that all of these adjectives can also be expressed as imperatives with the BE verb: "Be calm! / "Be careful!")
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?"
(I don't love it.)
The Mcdonald's slogan is grammatically incorrect because 'love' is a state verb. It should be 'I love it.' However, this non-traditional use of the verb 'love' has now become part of our language.
Practice: State Verbs & Action Verb Exercises
Put the below verbs into the Present Simple or Present Progressive tense.
- I (know) the answer.
- The child (look) at the TV now.
- This cake (taste) delicious.
- My father (not/own) a car.
- I (wear) a blue sweater today.
- Jane (seem) a little angry today.
- People (do) yoga in the park across the street right now.
- Chan (think) that English is easy.
- Lily (love) my brother now.
- My sister (not/talk) on the phone at the moment.
Exercise #2: Verbs That Are Both State & Action Verbs
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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