Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at state and action verbs. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.
In grammar books, state and action verbs are often called action and non-action verbs. I don’t really like that description because every verb is some kind of action. It’s just maybe more static or not. I think using the term state and action verbs makes it a bit easier to understand what they are.
What are state and action verbs?
There are some verbs which can never be used in a continuous structure like the present continuous or the past continuous or the present perfect continuous. And that’s because of the nature of their meaning. If a verb describes a state or a way of being, then that action can’t be in progress. It is a permanent thing. Of course, that permanent thing can change, but because it’s not changing right now we’re not using a progressive aspect. For example: Today you might love coffee, but in 10 years you might not love coffee.
A state verb is an established thing. For example: I need a coffee. This describes your state at the moment. After you drink the coffee you won’t need a coffee anymore. That action is not in progress. That action is a fact that you need a coffee. And that’s why we use a simple tense structure and not a continuous. It’s not changing right now or a temporary action.
I have a selection of verbs for you. I want you to decide if they are what we call a state verb, something which is fixed or if it’s an action verb. For example, the verb kick – kick a football. I’m sure we all can safely say that’s an action verb, as we can use it in a continuous structure I am kicking a football. Whereas if we look at the verb like, we can’t put it into a continuous tense. I’m liking swimming is wrong. Like is describing your state. Maybe you remember that advert from McDonalds I’m loving it. That advert was grammatically incorrect. However, you probably hear people saying it in an informal context, which is OK when talking to your friends. But if you want to take an exam or use your English in a formal context, stick to the official grammar rule and don’t say I’m loving it.
Important: there are some verbs which can be both, action and state verb depending on the context.
An example: I think educations is important. – AND – I’m thinking about buying a car.
If you analyse those two sentences, you’ll notice that think in these sentences has different meanings. In the first sentence, I’m expressing my opinion. And in the second one, I’m considering doing something. My opinion is my belief, it’s something established, which doesn’t change suddenly. So, in that context, think is a state verb. However, in the second sentence where think means considering, it is an action in progress, something that’s developing, that’s changing. For those reasons think in the second sentence is an action verb. But don’t worry, there aren’t that many verbs which are both.
One last thing, please don’t confuse state and action verbs with gerunds. Gerunds are not a tense structure, they are verbs functioning as a noun e.g. Being famous is hard. I love cooking. Being and cooking aren’t verbs in that context, they are nouns. But this only as a side note. If you want to brush up your knowledge about gerunds you can do this here.
OK, back to our verb lists. Try to organize them into action verbs (kick – kicking), state verbs (love), or both (think) where the meaning of the verb changes depending on the context.
We’ve already talked about think in detail. Now let’s have a closer look at have, as it’s one of those rare verbs which can be both, depending on the context. For example, I have a son. Have means possess, which is a permanent thing, I can’t get rid of my son. Whereas if we say I’m having lunch, have means consume, which is an action in progress. Same verb, but completely different meaning. As so often in English: Context is key!
Let’s do a little bit more practice. I have here another list of verbs, can you organize them into action verbs, state verbs or both?
Here’s another exercise. This time you need to decide which sentence is correct. In some cases, both sentences can be correct.
I know state and action verbs can be a bit tricky. I think the best way to approach it is to think about the meaning of the verb and think about what you’re expressing. I hope today’s lesson helped you understand state and action verbs a bit better. If you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment.