The state of state verbs

In a recent post for “Draft,” the New York Times Opinionator series, I set out to introduce readers to two important categories of verbs: static and dynamic. Some writers and teachers use the words “passive” and “active” for these categories, but this is confusing, because we also use the words “passive” and “active” when talking about the squishy notion of voice, which I’ll be addressing later in the series.

What I won’t mention at all in this series—but what some mentioned in the comments after my “Make-or-Break Verbs” post—is a very geeky way of subdividing dynamic verbs into two other categories: stative and nonstative. I go into detail on this in Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, but if you don’t want to wait until October, when the book comes out, here’s the (brief) lowdown:

Surprise! Stative verbs—which are sometimes called “state verbs”—describe states: mental states, physical sensations, habits, eternal truths, or conditions. By contrast, nonstative verbs describe happenings or events with beginnings and ends.

Stative verbs have no foreseeable endpoint. Because we can only use verbs in the progressive tense if they describe events or actions, stative verbs cannot be used in these tenses, which describe an action while it’s happening. You can say, I was watering the Venus fly traps, but you cannot say I was knowing Darlene for the past ten years.

Get the difference?

Here’s a cheatsheet to help you identify stative verbs (not that I can think of why you would ever have to do that):

  • For mental states: exist, want, feel, think, like, dislike, agree, believe, doubt, seem, know, imagine, remember, mind, prefer, need, understand, wish, depend, possess, have, own, promise, suppose, impress, matter, mean, surprise.
  • For physical sensations: see, hear, smell, taste, sound, look, appear.
  • For eternal truths or statements that are timeless: concern, consist, contain, fit, include, involve, measure, weigh, make (numbers), move (the earth), share (geographic borders).
  • For habits, usually expressed in phrases: “I like reading westerns”; “I don’t eat meat or dairy.”

I told you it was geeky! Now you probably understand why I am avoiding this subject in the “Draft” series.

(And here’s a shout-out to poet Ava Sayaka Rosen, who researched stative verbs and helped me write this post.)

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2 Responses to The state of state verbs

  1. Ralph Frammolino April 17, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Could you write a post specifically for those of us in the perpetual death grip of the stative menace “to be”? As a former newspaper (not sportswriter) hack, I fight this default construction, which was beaten into my brain because of its perceived neutrality, but now prefer not to be enslaved to this writerly dependency. Any literary or mental tricks to pass along? Please excuse if you’ve already covered this. Thanks.

  2. Stephen M Berer May 23, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

    Just discovered you, and love what I’m finding.
    Now, you say above that we can’t say, “I was knowing Darlene for the past ten years.”
    Perfect! What a GREAT example of EXACTLY what I’m tring to do in the new grammar I’m developing, what I call ‘quantum mechanical linguistics’. This jarring use of a stative verb form actually conveys a more accurate understanding of 1) the progressive and changing state of our knowledge; 2) temporality in relationships with people and the world; and 3) the activeness of our knowing (knowledge is not received; we create and evolve it).
    I guess this post is even geekier than our normal understanding of stative and nonstative verbs. Just sayin’…

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