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Language learning myths 3

December 07, 2008

Hello again,

It is always a delicate balance between giving learners easily applicable rules and misleading them about the universality of those rules. One of the most difficult areas is advice on stative and dynamic verbs. It sounds like ...

...a simple rule of thumb: stative verbs are not used in the progressive form. The trouble is that the exceptions to this rule are often more frequently met and can have a more important function than examples of it that uphold the rule.

I have come to the conclusion that is not helpful to make this distinction between verbs but better to describe how tenses affect meaning. The present simple tense can impart a sense of state while progressive tenses impart a sense of event. By looking at the phenomenon in this way we can decide whether a particular is used statively or dynamically in any given context. Many people have commented on MacDonald’s slogan, “I’m lovin’ it” as if this were an unidiomatic use of the stative verb, “love”. But it isn’t. It has always been perfectly acceptable to say: “she’s loving her new job”; “they’re loving their new house”. The clue to the dynamic use is the word “new”: the dynamic progressive form implies a change from a previous situation.

Let's take another example. The verb “like” is thought of as stative. But it has always been used dynamically too: “I’m liking her more and more.” Again there is a sense of change over time. It seems to me therefore that the choice is between a statement of what is generally true: “I like my job” and a description of fluid situation: “I’m liking my job more now.”

In fact some so-called stative verbs, such as “hope”, “wonder”, “think” have a special attitude when used in the progressive in that they carry additional politeness: “I am hoping you will be able to help me”: “I was wondering if you could lend me the money”; “I was thinking you might do it.”

Some verbs classically defined as stative such as “own”, “belong”, “believe” are probably quite unlikely to be used dynamically. But does that alter my main point? If we want to imply a sense of recent change then we can surely say: “people are no longer belonging to stable communities”; “more people are owning cars these days”; “fewer people are believing in formal religion.” Perhaps such expressions are not elegant but they reinforce my point that choice of the progressive form over the simple form of the tense introduces the idea of change over time and is thus quite justifiable.

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