From a young age, students are often introduced to verbs as ‘doing words’, implying that all verbs represent actions that can be performed consciously. However, there are two kinds of verb in English: ‘action verbs’, which are used to communicate this kind of deliberate, physical action, and ‘state verbs’, which represent other, more abstract or permanent aspects of our selves. So what is the difference between these two types of verb, and how can we teach them effectively?
Action verbs are the more intuitive type of verb: they communicate actions which can be performed at will, for example ‘walk’, ‘talk’, play’, etc. When we think about action verbs we can easily see someone physically doing this thing.
State verbs, on the other hand, often represent less visible activity. When we ‘believe’ something, for example, we don’t consciously do anything in order for that to happen. We can imaging someone nodding, agreeing, or even praying, but it is more difficult to picture someone believing something. This is one way of recognising a state verb: it is an internal act or feeling such as ‘trust’, ‘like’ or ‘love’ rather than an external or physical activity.
Another way of recognising state verbs is that by definition they represent longer-term conditions (states) which the subject of the sentence undergoes. If you believe in a god, for example, this is unlikely to change. Similarly, if you like chocolate or love someone, these are long-term states which do not typically end. They can end, and we can change our mind about something that we like or love, but this does not happen in the same way as with action verbs, which represent distinct periods of ‘doing’.
There is also a grammatical difference which shows this long-term state / specific action difference in state and action verbs: the use of continuous tenses. Action verbs, having a distinct end point, can be communicated easily using continuous tenses, for example:
I was playing tennis when a dog ran onto the court. It was running around chasing the balls until someone caught it.
The present continuous tense is used here to communicate an action which is open to interruption; continuous actions (here, ‘playing’, ‘running’ and ‘chasing’) can be ended or interrupted by other simple events (‘ran’ and ‘caught’ in the above example). However, if we try to use the same continuous structure with state verbs, it becomes problematic:
When I was very young, I was believing that the moon was made of cheese. My uncle told me this and I was trusting him until we studied science at primary school and my teacher told me that the moon was made of rock.
Here, the ‘believing’ and ‘trusting’, although temporary states, are still seen as permanent by default, so the continuous grammar is not appropriate. This holds true of most state verbs, as they are held to be permanent unless a large-scale event happens to change them to another permanent state (in the above example, that the moon is in fact made of rock).
A good way to group state verbs for teaching is to categorise them by their overall meanings. For example, most verbs which refer to degrees of preference (like, love, hate, dislike, adore, abhor, detest, etc.) are all stative as they all refer to the same kind of long-term state. Similarly, verbs connected with belonging or possession (own, have, possess, etc.) and thought processes (believe, doubt, know, etc.) are communicated as stative.
To show the concept difference between action and state verbs, we can contrast the action and state versions of the same verb, by looking at the change in meaning between the simple and continuous forms. For example, what is the difference between the verbs in the following pairs of sentences:
I think live music is better than listening to a CD.
Wait a minute - I’m thinking…
Three people survived the accident
“Many workers are not surviving on the minumum wage"
It’s true that people look like their pets
You’re looking really good today!
As you can see, the specific, contextualised meanings of these verbs changes significantly depending on whether they are used as stative, simple actions, or more active, continuous verbs. These sentence pairs might make a good first activity in a top-down lesson structure, which goes on to examine different language options that are possible in sentences like these.This is an interesting discussion to highlight the different shades of meaning between the concepts of states and actions in English.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL over 12 weeks, part-time in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.