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Stative Verbs In Present Day English English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 2663 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The use of stative verbs in the BE + -ing progressive form, when teaching English as a second language, is prohibited. Students are taught that these verbs do not take the progressive form because they do not express an action or an activity in progress. English grammar books in schools are the reflection of a majority of linguists who agree to the classical definition: the progressive forms occur only with dynamic verbs, that is, with verbs that show qualities capable of change as opposed to stative verbs, which show qualities not capable of change.

In Vendler’s [1] (1967) four-way classification of verbs, for example, state is defined as an eventuality in which there is no perceptible change.

a. activities: Mary danced for an hour.

b. accomplishments: Mary built three houses in a year.

c. achievements: The window broke.

d. states: Mary knows the answer.

And according to Carlota Smith [2] (1983), as well, “states are homogeneous, stable situations that lack internal structure” (p. 490). States lack shift or variation; they are without activity and successive stages. In other words, states consist of “undifferentiated moments” (p. 490). Once a change takes place, a new state is said to come into existence.

Yet, I have already heard native speakers use such verbs in the progressive form. And, as I was looking for examples of such utterances, I read several opinions on this topic on a social forum on the Internet [1] .

The issue of the discussion was the sentence “I’m wanting him to go to nursery school”, apparently used in an educated environment, and which led people to give a lot of other examples where stative verbs in the progressive were employed frequently by relatives or acquaintances, constructions such as:

“I’m thinking I’ll go get some pizza at that place downtown . . .”

“I’m hoping there won’t be a long line . . .”

“I’m betting you’ll want some — shall I get a large?”

Therefore, this made me think of something I was also always told, which is that a foreign language could be mastered only in direct contact with native speakers. There must be a reason to why native speakers choose the progressive of stative verbs and can all stative verbs be used in the progressive? What are stative verbs exactly and how are they used today? Are they used by native speakers coming from different backgrounds? Are progressive statives grammatical errors? Is the traditional definition of a stative verb as impossible to use in the progressive form still correct? Could stative verbs have, in fact, a dynamic dimension, representing a language change in progress?

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Martha Kolln [2] suggests that we think of the difference between stative and dynamic in terms of “willed” and “nonwilled” qualities. Consider the difference between a so-called dynamic adjective (or subject complement) and a stative adjective (or subject complement): “I am silly” OR “I am being silly” versus “I am tall.” I have chosen to be silly; I have no choice about being tall. Thus “tall” is said to be a stative (or an “inert”) quality, and we cannot say “I am being tall”; “silly,” on the other hand, is dynamic so we can use progressive verb forms in conjunction with that quality.

The same applies to verbs. Two plus two equals four. Equals is inert, stative, and cannot take the progressive; there is no choice, no volition in the matter. (We would not say, “Two plus two is equaling four.”) In the same way, nouns and pronouns can be said to exhibit willed and unwilled characteristics. Thus, “She is being a good worker” (because she chooses to be so), but we would say “She is (not is being) an Olympic athlete” (because once she becomes an athlete she no longer “wills it”).

Recent studies (Kakietek [1] 1997; Smiecinska [2] 2002) also show that non-progressive verbs instead of constituting a separate syntactic category can freely occur in progressive forms in appropriate contexts. And in an edited collection of “characteristic difficulties of learners of English” by Swan and Smith [3] (2001), it is stated that the use of the progressive is extended to contexts traditionally prohibited such as stative verbs.

From a semantic perspective, it is possible that the use of stative verbs has gained new dimensions in today’s English and that the progressive form adds affective meaning to utterances. In fact, the progressive form and its capacity to suggest emotional implication is not that recent of an idea.. Potter [4] (1975), for instance, points out the speakers’ desire to make what they say “more lively and vivid” when using the progressive form.

I am also questioning whether the massive migration in English spoken countries does not influence and determine these changes in the use of stative verbs in the progressive, as it seems that such constructions are typical for Indian English for example, and if so, is there a need for a study of the use of progressive statives from a sociolinguistic perspective?

In a study by Silke Schubert [1] , Overuse of the progressive aspect in Indian English, the controversy of whether Indian English features should be considered “errors” or “new norms” is quite vivid. She concludes that “features of Indian English could thus display the same characteristics of those of an English dialect or other national variety and would not be qualitatively different from, say, features of Scottish or Irish English.”

Finally, I am hoping to see if the use of progressive statives harms communication, or if on the contrary, they have been well integrated into the language and into the speakers’ sensibility.

The purpose of this study is to describe and analyze how native speakers are using stative verbs in the progressive form today. Thus data has been collected and it has allowed for a semantic and pragmatic analysis of stative progressive usage.

The Progressive form in English

The English progressive has had several stages of development from early Modern English to nowadays. This process seems unfinished today, proving that the language is very much alive and changing constantly. [1] 

Scheffer (1975) goes back to Old and Middle English and Smitterberg (2005) to 19th-century data to show how the progressive has become more common in English over the centuries.

It did not become grammaticalized until as late as the eighteenth century, and did not assume a consistent passive form until the nineteenth century. In the later twentieth century, regionally divergent uses of the progressive became well-documented, while the progressive itself has became a fully grammaticalized part of the verbal system in standard English. Its vivacity as a grammatical requirement in English and concurrent relative uniqueness testify to the productivity of English as a language that is evolving not only lexically, but syntactically as well. 

Most descriptive grammars of present-day English (e.g. Quirk et al, 1985) [2] refer to the distributional constraints on the use of the Progressive aspect as prohibited with stative verbs used in a stative manner; that is, the use of the Progressive is restricted to dynamic events, regardless of the kind of verb which may appear in such events. Other stative verbs which do not usually occur in the Progressive are those expressing, according to Quirk et al, `inert perception and cognition’; that is, verbs which usually occur with a that — or a wh-complement, and typically do not have an agent subject; e.g. understand:

*I am understanding that the offer has been accepted. (Quirk et al 1985: 203)

Others include a class of `relational verbs’, such as belong, contain, equal, own, and resemble:

*We are owning a house in the country. (Quirk et al 1985: 198)

The Progressive developed out of dynamic, agentive functions, and the inclusion of stative verbs in some uses today suggests a weakening of earlier agentivity requirements. Hopper and Traugott (1993: 100) [1] do in fact suggest that progressives were earlier restricted to agentive situations and that the generalisation of the Progressive to include passive subjects and inanimate subjects with stative verbs (e.g. There are statues standing in the park) is an indication that the Progressive is becoming less restricted as far as agentivity is concerned.

What many researchers seem to suggest as an explanation for the growth in native speaker use is a stylistic one. For example, Potter (1975: 120) refers to speakers’ growing desire to make what they say “more lively and vivid”, and Scheffer (1975: 110) [2] speculates that the increased use may be due to the “latitude to convey subtle shades of meaning” that the progressive provides to the speaker. In the same way, Mair and Hundt (1995: 118-119) [3] suggest the reason would be “a textlinguistic or stylistic one” and that it might be led by the affective-emotional use of the progressive (as in”You’re always complaining”) so that “in cases in which the simple form can be used alongside the progressive, the latter tends to be chosen with increasing frequency”.

Ungrammatical or non-standard? The speaker’s choice to present a situation.; The speaker may temporarily endow a stative situation with properties characteristic of events.

“In England, in my social/educational group, ‘I am wanting’ is quite common.

‘I want him to go to nursery school.’

has a subtle difference in meaning from

‘I’m wanting him to go to nursery school.’

The first is a simple statement of fact – and expresses a feeling you have that you have no doubt about.

The second is more reflective: you have had internal doubts – or possibly you think someone may challenge or be surprised at your view.” [1] 

The progressive aspect can add affective meaning (Quirk et al. 1992: 202). This is the functional difference between

a) I hope you will come


b) I’m hoping you will come,

where the latter is perceived to be more tentative or polite. The progressive can also turn the stative meaning into a process meaning, such as in

a) Tina is resembling her sister more and more

as opposed to the stative quality of

b) Tina resembles her sister.

Even verbs of perceptions such as see, hear and smell can be used in the -ingform if the process of perception is treated as an ongoing process, although Quirk describes this as “unusual”:

1) My scarf is no longer smelling of lavender.

2) I need some spectacles. I’m not seeing things so well these days.

Many of these verbs have developed certain specialised sub-senses or have undergone a “reclassification of the verb as dynamic” (Quirk et al. 1992: 202). [1] 

Grammatical distinction in English aspect is marked by two forms of the verb: be+Verb +ing for the progressive and have+past participle for the perfect. The progressive is viewed from the inside as a situation in progress, ongoing at that point, whereas, with the perfect, the situation is viewed from the outside, in retrospect and relative to another situation.

However, grammatical aspect is not the only dimension to consider, but one must carefully take into account the lexical aspect of a situation. Thus complete and incomplete meaning of a situation will indicate the opposition between progressive and perfect aspect. Lexical aspect is also characterized by the opposition stative / dynamic. Stative aspect implies a permanent condition, whereas dynamic state implies potential evolution. However, it is possible to find “stative verbs” used in sentences implying change and some verbs used with both stative and dynamic meanings. Finally, there is a pragmatic dimension of the English aspect, more precisely, the progressive form expresses politeness, emphasis and tentativeness. [2] 

The verbs commonly described as “stative” are very heterogeneous and there is ongoing controversy about useful categorisations.

The works of three grammarians on the progressive aspect are quite relevant especially for the progressive statives and these are Dagut, Smith and Kearns.

Method: COCA (1990-2010), BNC (corpus), forums (social networks)

Semantic Analysis:

The meaning of the progressive form: aspectual (completion/repetition); descriptive (vividness, emphasis);

The lexical meaning of the verb

The role of the context in the meaning (topic of conversation; relationship of the interlocutors; intent of the speaker).

Pragmatic Analysis:

Interpretation based on the relationship of the interlocutors and the linguistic and social contexts of the situation.

Comparaison with the simple form version of the same sentence will highlight the effect of the progressive form.

11 Satives have more than 10 tokens

5 statives analysed: hear, see, love, remember, think.


Purpose of the study


Linguistic theories on the Progressive Aspect in English

Stative verbs and the progressive aspect


The corpus

Semantic Analysis

Pragmatic Analysis

Semantic analysis


Pragmatic analysis





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