Dec 18, 2017

The state of stative verbs

or why I've stopped teaching them (and why you shouldn't bother with them either)


Photo by Emma Newman Segev
via ELTpics on Flickr
Like for many EFL/ESL teachers, stative verbs used to be a staple of my teaching menu. I had a great activity for focusing on them, which I have abandoned because I've come to realise that it served no purpose.



The activity, which I may have picked up on my CELTA or from Dave's ESL cafe (who remembers it?), went like this. Groups of 3-4 students (Pre-Intermediate level and up) are given a stack of cards with verbs written on them. They pick up the cards, in turns, and mime the verb for other students to guess. The correct guesser keeps the card and the one with most cards at the end is the winner. But the aim of the activity is not to review vocabulary. At the end of the miming / guessing part, students are asked which verbs were easy to mime and which ones proved a bit challenging, stretching the students' artistic resources. The "easy" ones are:

eat     drink   drive    sit     fall     pray     walk

And the difficult ones would be:

love     like    admire    want     understand     belong     consist      

Unbeknownst to learners, these 'difficult' ones are coloured in red, which helps during the next stage - clarification. After eliciting from students why they found the 'red' verbs difficult (they do not describe actions but refer to states), students are asked to sort them into sub-categories which can (but doesn't have to) be given in advance:

feelings ('heart' verbs): love, like, admire
thinking ('head' verbs): understand, realise
other: belong, own, consist

There is an opportunity for discussion here - my students would always end up debating whether "believe" should be in the 'heart' or the 'head' sub-category. Unfortunately that's about the only time learners get to produce any language in this activity, which is fun and engaging but involves almost no speaking apart from shouting out random, unrelated verbs in the infinitive. You may argue that it is a consciousness-raising rather than production activity. Whatever its aim, I've discarded it from my teaching repertoire and here's why you should consider following suit:

Stative vs. dynamic meanings

First of all, it would be more accurate to talk about stative vs dynamic meanings of certain verbs. Many so-called stative verbs have dynamic meanings, for example "see": She's seeing someone new (=dating)

In the same way, "think" has both stative and dynamic meanings:
(have an opinion): I think stative verbs are not a valid grammatical category. / What do you think?
(making plans): I'm thinking of buying a new laptop.

Surely we should look at many different meanings of a verb before assigning it in one fell swoop to an artificially created category. And artificial is what it is. Like with many pedagogical grammar rules, the stative / dynamic distinction was essentially imposed on what should be treated as vocabulary in the first place. The difference between stative and dynamic is semantic rather than structural (morphological or syntactic). Despite this obvious fact, many coursebooks and many teachers using them regard stative verbs as a grammatical category which deserves special treatment in the classroom. Why? Because - here comes the oft-repeated grammar mantra - stative verbs cannot be used in the progressive (continuous) form.


More 'exceptions' to the 'rule'

Even if you set aside all the dynamic senses of supposedly stative verbs described above, you will still find that it's perfectly acceptable to use many verbs denoting mental states and matters of the heart in the progressive:

I was hoping...
I've been wanting to do it
I'm sorry, I was forgetting that you would be away in August. (example from Cambridge Dictionary)
We are tending to use it more... (as heard in a talk by Penny Ur)
I just want to make sure I'm understanding what I'm reading (as heard in the film Erin Brockovich)


And examples like these are numerous. I have recently had a discussion with teachers in one of the Facebook groups, where almost every participant came up with an example in which an allegedly stative verb could be used in the progressive form. Interestingly, this didn't stop the participants from insisting that Stative verbs are a valid grammar point. Even if it was once - according to some earlier language descriptions, let's not forget that grammar is an abstraction, and grammar rules are an attempt to generalize over the dynamic, constantly evolving system that is language. But when so many examples from every day use contradict the made-up rule, perhaps the rule needs to be revised in line with the change in language use?

The progressive is on the rise

Clear evidence of this change comes from diachronic corpus research, i.e. study of language through collection of attested samples of language use through different periods in history. Corpus studies have shown that the progressive/continuous aspect has become more common in English since the late 17th century with the most notable rise in popularity in the second half of the 20th century - see Levin (2013) for overview. (I've already touched upon it once in the post entitled SLOPPY BRITS OR UPTIGHT AMERICANS). Some examples of the progressive aspect being used where a simple form would have probably been appropriate in the past are:

You're looking good! How have you been?  
I'm hating my job.
I'm guessing it'll take another day or two.

This increase in the use of the progressive can be attributed to a number of factors. One is the growing influence of World Englishes, particularly the varieties used in the countries of Kachru's Outer Circle, such as the Philippines, Singapore etc. Research shows (Collins 2008) that English speakers in the Outer Circle countries tend to be more innovative in the use of the progressive aspect often extending its use to new contexts. Added to that is the well-attested overuse of the progressive marking in learner English (Hundt & Vogel 2011), in other words among the speakers of English in the Expanding Circle.

The increased frequency of use of the progressive aspect also coincides with a trend towards colloquialization in written English with written language becoming more informal and adopting the conventions of spoken discourse (Levin 2013), in which the progressive form occurs more frequently. In addition to these reasons gleaned from the literature, I can't help but think that the increasing popularity of the progressive stems from the way we perceive today's world. The world we live in is becoming more and more fleeting and fast-paced, and, as a result, our perceptions of it more transient and temporary and, thus, better captured in the progressive aspect.

Finally, the widespread use of mobile phones also has a part to play in the process. Because of mobile phones we are more likely to report the events as they unfold. Twenty five years ago, the sentences such as I'm just getting into a cab or I'm just opening the door would be highly unlikely and seem contrived (unless they were used in the classroom - rather unnaturally - for the purposes of illustrating the Present Continuous). These days they are perfectly possible in text messages.


Certain words like certain grammar

'What are you looking for?'
One important point worth making in relation to stative verbs and their use in the progressive is that some verbs indeed show preference for a certain aspect - this has nothing to do with them being stative or dynamic. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "colligation".

For example: "look for" tends to occur in the progressive whereas "found" being a telic verb, prefers simple forms.

What are you looking for? I'm looking for my car keys.

Declarative verbs do not normally occur as progressive verbs.

I admit I know very little about the subject.
I declare you man and wife (at a wedding)

With these verbs "the saying of the sentence is the action referred to" (Lewis, 1986:86). Further examples (ibid) are:

I propose a toast
I swear by almighty God... (the oath taken in court)

Drawing on an vast corpus of authentic English text, the The Longman Student's Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al 2002) identifies the following verbs commonly occurring with the progressive marking (more than 80% of the time):

bleed, chase, chat, joke, kid, moan, shop, starve

with bleed and starve almost always used in the progressive form (I'm starving).

On the contrary, verbs with instantaneous meanings almost never take the progressive, for example arrest or shrug (ibid., 163). Most importantly, the authors of this ground-breaking corpus-informed reference book confirm that the use of the progressive is not determined by stativity alone:
Many previous descriptions of progressive aspect describe it as occurring with dynamic verbs. However, it turns out that both dynamic verbs and stative verbs occur with the progressive. (ibid., 164)

Don't get into a state over stative verbs

It seems to me the whole notion of stative verbs was invented to prevent mistakes such as *He's owning the house or *I'm wanting it, but, honestly, how often have you heard students say that?! Like with many grammar points, this one tries to deal with something that doesn't pose a problem to begin with, but creates confusion after you have focused on it.

Yes, some English verbs have stative meanings, but why should they be elevated to a special status (to the exclusion of other categories, such as declarative or telic verbs - see above)? And why should we dwell on the stative vs dynamic distinction, which is too abstract and too imprecise to waste precious class time on? All verbs in English have their own inherent lexical aspectuality and, as such, are best dealt with lexically, by looking at their meanings as these meanings come up (like two different senses of think in the examples above). On the whole, stative verbs are one example of artificially created 'difficult grammar' areas which can be effectively addressed through more thorough teaching of vocabulary.


References

Biber, D., Conrad, S., Leech, G. N., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. N. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. London: Longman.

Collins 1, P. (2008). The progressive aspect in World Englishes: A corpus-based study. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 28(2): 225-249.

Hundt, M., & Vogel, K. (2011). Overuse of the progressive in ESL and learner Englishes – fact or fiction? In J. Mukherjee & M. Hundt (Eds.), Exploring second-language varieties of English and learner Englishes: Bridging a paradigm gap (pp. 145–166). Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 

Levin, M. (2013). The progressive verb in modern American English. In B. Aarts et al.(eds.),The Verb Phrase in English: Investigating Recent Language Change with Corpora (pp. 187-216). Cambridge: CUP

Lewis, M. (1986). The English verb: An exploration of structure and meaning. Language Teaching Publications.

17 comments:

  1. "the widespread use of mobile phones also has a part to play in the process. Because of mobile phones we are more likely to report the events as they unfold." > While I have ditched the idea of an absolute distinctive category called 'stative', I never really thought about this contributing factor, Leo. Nice.

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    1. And I thought you'd appreciate my line about our world being fleeting and fast-paced :)

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  2. I do like the topic about questioning the grammar and its update. Language is a process and can not be ruled by a single point of view, detached from time and context.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Jalmir.

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  3. Another great post Leo. Once again you demonstrate the arbitrary nature of a descriptive grammar. Why should Mr. MacDonalds not have his grammar day with "I'm loving it!" Yes, we should treat grammatical categories as vocabulary and explore their colligates ( can one say this?!); which is not terribly difficult these days with the plethora of lexical tools and corpora at our disposal. Cheers!

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    1. I suppose if we say "collocates" (from collocation) we can say "colligates" :)
      Thank you for dropping a line, Lindsey.

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  4. hi Leo

    i think maybe there are issues being mixed here i.e. descriptive grammars and pedagogical grammars;

    your case is against the usefulness of pointing out to students that stative verbs (not i presume states in general?) are not used usually in the progressive aspect.

    but the exceptions you mentioned can be described in a pedagogic grammar as temporary states so i may be not loving the McDonalds slogan for now whereas i don't love McDonalds the brand indefinitely;


    and some dynamic verbs are not usually used in non-progressive forms e.g. I write a blog comment (sounds odd here) vs I am writing a blog comment (sounds ok); I wrote a blog comment (sounds okay too in this context)

    ta
    mura

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    1. Hi Mura,

      Indeed, the examples I refer to ARE described in pedagogic grammar as exceptions (mind you, SOME - not all - of these examples; others would be considered plain wrong). But the whole notion of stative verbs not being used in the progressive is already treated by pedagogic grammars as a sort of exception to the general rule (the general rule being ANY verb can occur in ANY form, which, as we know from corpus research, is not true). So is is an exception to an exception - I mean, how many exceptions on top of exceptions can learners handle?! And what for? And why?

      Regarding your last point, I'm a bit confused myself. Why can't "write" be used in non-progressive (i.e. simple) form?

      'What do you like to do in your free time?' ~ 'I write blog posts about issues people didn't think were issues before. At the moment I'm writing a new post for my blog.'

      Both forms are possible. And there is a semantic difference. I often demonstrate it to my students using the collocation "read a book/books".

      I read books (on Kindle / on my way to work).
      I'm reading a (fascinating) book at the moment.

      The simple form tends go with 'books' in plural, and the progressive with A book (singular).

      Or am I not understanding you correctly? ;)


      L


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  5. hi Leo
    i meant you can "simply" (big scare quotes) explain those exceptions as temporary states, so as a pedagogic grammar still useful?

    sorry for confusion on "write" example of a dynamic verb; in this context i.e. describing the event of tapping on a keyboard - I am writing a blog comment makes sense (an ongoing event "unbounded" (or viewing the internal process of an event) but with an implicit boundary i.e can stop anytime the event (hopefully for your readers!); the non-progressive aspect of a present simple "write" is incompatible with the dynamic i.e. changing nature of the verb "write" i.e. at anypoint in the writing of this comment it is always in a state of change not fixed and enduring as the simple aspect implies;

    hope that makes sense?

    re the plural nouns/singular that is yet another facet into the mix much like transitivity e.g The food smells nice vs I am smelling the the nice food.

    ta
    mura

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    1. Yes, Mura, I get it now. As Michael Lewis describes it in 'The English Verb', the progressive closes a present event/action/state (and, on the contrary, opens it up in the past). So the progressive is temporary and limited. There is no reason then to postulate the existence of a special group of verbs called Stative, because the description essentially covers all cases.

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    2. yes, reminds me of my main point (re descriptive vs pedagogical grammars) - works such as Biber & chums have been labelled structuralist much like Quirk & pals grammar but corpus based & use oriented; that is to say such taxonomic approaches are limited as cases can be made as you do for removing some classifications such as stative verbs
      ta
      mura

      Delete
  6. Nice post and I like the idea that the increase in the use of progressive forms comes from us constantly updating everyone about what we're doing (not just by text, but on social media too).

    I would just point out though that from my experience working with learner corpus data, students DO quite frequently try to use progressive verb forms when they're describing states. There's plenty of evidence of "many people are having cars" and "the room is having a desk and a chair", etc. So, while I agree that it doesn't make sense to teach blanket rules about particular verbs, I think we do need to focus on their use to express particular meanings. Whether we do that verb by verb (as a feature of the lexis) or as a generalized topic (drawing several verbs and usages together), I think will depend on level.

    Julie.

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  7. Hi Julie,

    Thank you for contributing to this discussion with insights from the learner corpus. I do not entirely rule out some sort of focus on stative verbs as a generalized topic to heighten the learners' awareness - at higher levels. The crux of my argument is against teaching grammar divorced from meaning and presenting stative verbs as a meaningless exception when there is a fair degree of logic behind their behaviour. But I think we both agree there.

    As we know, the simple / progressive distinction is one of the most common areas of difficulty. Therefore it's important to guide learners by showing that certain verbs show preference for one or the other, and that includes stative verbs, or rather stative meanings of some verbs.

    But I also find that part of the problem stems from the way the continuous forms are (inadequately) taught. Raising learners' awareness of the nature of the progressive as the form describing an action/event going on for a limited period of time (as I pointed out in my reply to Mura's comment above), to a large extent, takes care of the problem, don't you think?

    This way learners will see that some verbs by their very nature are incompatible or unlikely with the progressive aspect because actions or states or events they describe cannot be conceptualized as lasting for a limited period of time.

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  8. The post and the comments are very interesting here, and I've learnt a new term (telic verbs) - or at least I think I have! Can you describe what they are?
    Thanks,
    Sandy

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post and the discussion that followed.
      Re telic verbs, quoting from the forthcoming Lexical Grammar:

      a verb that implies a goal or an endpoint, e.g. arrive, drown, sing as in 'sing a song' (cf. 'sing along' which is not telic)

      Delete
  9. what about the use of redundancies such as "things we share in common"? Isn't sharing and "in common" redundant?

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    1. That would be an interesting topic to explore too - in a future blog post.

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