Dealing with 'stative verbs'


  • Mind Our English
  • Tuesday, 18 Sep 2012

Is the phrase, “She is tasting your curry” an example of grammatically incorrect Indian English?

My column in this week’s Mind Our English deals with “verbs of state”. No, these are not government or royal verbs, as may be suggested by the analogy with “matters of state” (government matters) or “a state banquet” (a grand dinner hosted by a monarch or president).

They are actually called “state verbs” or “stative verbs”, because unlike most verbs, they express a state or condition, while other verbs (sometimes referred to as “dynamic verbs”) express actions, activities, events or processes.

Among the stative verbs are: be, believe, belong, contain, exist, feel, forget, have, hear, hope, know, lack, like, love, mean, own, prefer, reach, realise. remember, resemble, see, seem, smell, taste, understand and want.

These verbs are not generally used in the continuous (= progressive) tenses. I am writing this article partly because of a difference of opinion between Y.O. Lim and Mahid Masseluang on the use of these verbs in the continuous tenses.

Y.O. Lim, in an article (MOE, July 10), commented on McDonald’s tagline, “I’m lovin’ it”, which uses the stative verb “love” in the continuous tense. He said “it may be wrong in grammar, but it’s deliberate”, since the phrase “possesses the quality of freshness and motion that gives the expression life and makes it more dynamic.” He suggested that this is the use of “creative licence” on McDonald’s part.

Mahid Masseluang (who has contributed to MOE several times), in an e-mail to MOE on Aug 2, said that he did not see any grammatical mistake in “I’m lovin’ it”. To quote him: “Stative verbs, depending on the context, can be used in the present continuous tense to show current events.”

He went on to elaborate: “Thus, while ‘I love you’ indicates a state, ‘I’m loving every moment with you’ indicates something that is going on at the moment of speaking.” He also gave some examples of the use of stative verbs in the continuous tense “to show the currency of the event”, among them: “Don’t believe him. He is just being nice.”

Let us now hear the view of a prominent grammarian. Bas Aart, in his book Oxford Modern English Grammar (2011) writes: “... the progressive typically does not combine with state verbs. There are, however, exceptions to this generalisation, and these occur when we wish to indicate that a state verb is interpreted in a particular way, usually dynamically, and with an implication of temporariness, as in the following examples.”(p.268)

The following are some of the examples he gives:

1) “Maybe I am being fussy, but I don’t want to spend my life as a secretary.” He says that here, the speaker is aware he is acting in a fussy manner. However, if the speaker were to say “Maybe I am fussy...”, this use of the stative verb in the simple present tense would indicate that fussiness is a part of his personality – in other words, a permanent state in him.

2) “I have to say I’m missing all my friends.” Aart says that in this sentence, “there is a sense of acuteness ... the speaker misses their friends keenly, right now.” [“their” is here used as a singular possessive meaning “his or her”]

Among other exceptions to the normal usage of stative verbs, is the use of the verbs “see”, “exist” and “want” in the continuous tenses in contexts like the following:

1. “Call your health provider if ... you are seeing things that aren’t really there.” (from the Schizophrenia web page of the University of Maryland Medical Center)

2. “I’m just existing in hope. I’m afraid that they will just kill us and abandon us in the desert here.” (spoken by Paul Chandler who was kidnapped with his wife by Somali pirates in 2010, and later released, telegraph.co.uk 22 Jan 2010) We often say we are “just existing” and not really “living” when we are unhappy.

3. “Will you be wanting anything else, sir?” This use of “want” in the future continuous tense can be heard spoken by British waiters to their customers in restaurants, for example. This particular quotation comes from the well-known novel Goodbye, Mr Chips (James Hilton, 1934) and is spoken by Mrs Wicketts, Mr Chips’ landlady, to Mr Chips, who is a retired schoolmaster.

Some verbs, especially those of perception, are used both statively and dynamically, depending on what a speaker means. For instance, we don’t say: “These roses are smelling sweet.” or “The curry is tasting delicious.”, since we are describing the qualities (or states) of the roses and the curry respectively.

But in the following dialogue, the verbs “smell” and “taste” are used in the continuous tense as non-stative verbs expressing actions:

A. What are you doing outside?

B. I am smelling the roses in your garden. (We can see B putting her nose close to the roses.) Mmmm, they are fragrant!

A. And where is C?

B. She is tasting your curry in the kitchen to make sure it’s hot enough for her. You know what she’s like.

Other verbs have very different meanings, one or more of which is not stative. For example, when we say “I am coming to your party tomorrow.”, the verb “come” is not a stative one. But when we say “I come from Johor Baru.” (meaning “I am from Johor Bahru.”), the verb “come” is stative, and we can’t say “I am coming from Johor Baru.” Similarly with the verb “have”, which is stative when it indicates possession. Thus we say “She has a lot of lovely clothes.” but not “She is having a lot of lovely clothes.” But we can say “I am having dinner now.” (where “am having” means “eating”).

Although it is grammatical to use some stative verbs in the continuous tenses in the right context, we shouldn’t overdo it. The late Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel, who wrote in English, has left, among other poems, a funny parody of common errors in Indian English speech, among which is the tendency to use stative verbs in the continuous tenses at the wrong places. Here is a sample:

“You are all knowing, friends,

what sweetness is in Miss Pushpa

. . . Miss Pushpa is coming

from very high family.

Her father was renowned advocate

in Bulsar or Surat,

I am not remembering now which place.”

You can find the whole poem at:

http://musing4ever.blogspot.com/2011/01/goodbye-party-for-miss-pushpa-ts-by.html

n Fadzilah Amin taught English literature at university, but after retirement started teaching English language. She believes we learn most when trying to teach others.

Mind Our English is published once a week on Tuesdays. For comments or inquiries on English usage, please contact the writer at fedela7@yahoo.co.uk


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