What Are Actions and States?
Based on whether the verb is describing an event or a state of being, we categorize them into two different groups:
State verbs describe situations that are related to the intrinsic features of a thing, person, or situation and are therefore unchanging throughout their entire duration.
We do not categorize verbs as state or action verbs, but rather as verbs used in state or action contexts.
Using Simple Tenses to Show States
Some concepts truly appear permanent because they have seemingly existed this way for years. When describing states, we typically use simple tenses. Certain enduring states always require the use of simple tenses. For example:
- Possession: Owning and being in possession of a thing or characteristics. It can also refer to familial and other relationships.
using 'have' in the progressive form no longer conveys the meaning of 'possession'. It is used to indicate 'expecting a child to be born.'
These senses of 'have' are not used in the continuous tense. Using the continuous tense implies 'pretending to have' which does not make sense in this context.
- Intrinsic Features: Characteristics and features that are inherent to a thing or person. They are part of who or what they are. Such as being, age, gender, measurement, etc.
am being 30 years old.')
This is a state. We cannot express it with the continuous tense.
is measuring 6 x 6 meters.')
This is a state. You cannot use continuous tenses with it because measurement is an inherent concept. It does not change.
All the toys
fitting in the box.')
You cannot use continuous tenses with these states because they do not denote actions. They show how things are or have been.
'Deserve' is not used in the continuous tense.
- Perceptions and Cognitions: Those beliefs and thoughts that make up the belief system of a person. They are not likely to change.
'Believe' is not used in the continuous tense. Do not say 'I
am believing you'.
'Understand' is not used in the continuous tense. Do not say 'I'm
understanding what you're saying'.
This meaning of the verb 'think' means to believe, to have an opinion. This is a state. It is not a temporary thing. if we say 'I am thinking he is cute' it means it is a temporary thing.
- Personal Permanent States: Things that are part of a person's life, such as living conditions, working conditions, etc.
Using simple tense means it is a permanent state, not something temporary. Also, if we want to mention the action of working in a restaurant, we can no longer use simple tense.
This shows a state. It is permanent and not likely to change. Saying 'I am living in Montreal' shows that the speaker is emphasizing on the temporariness of the action.
- Feelings and emotions: the emotions a person experiences towards something and are not likely to change.
Using simple tenses implies that this is a permanent state, not something temporary.
It shows a state that is not going to change, but when we say it as a continuous verb, it means the speaker is referring to an action that is going on at the moment of speaking.
With the verb 'wish' we cannot use a continuous tense. Why? Because it is a thing that we wanted to happen.
- Perceptions: it refers to the way you think about something and your idea of what it is like.
is seeming nice.')
'Seem' cannot be used in the continuous tense. Because it shows a state that is permanent and incapable or unlikely to change.
is fitting me.')
In this meaning, 'fit' is not used in the continuous tense.
Using Continuous Tenses to Show States
If we use continuous tenses with long states, the meaning of the verb (and the sentence) changes completely. The context and meaning of the verb completely shift.
Using 'have' with a state meaning in continuous tense, changes the meaning of have from 'possession' to 'expecting a child'.
Using the continuous tense with this long state, shows that he is acting like a 13-year-old. It is not a fact. It is a short temporary behavior.
This is an action. So we are using the continuous tense.
With states, the emphasis is on the permanent nature of the meaning. Therefore it is not usually necessary to use continuous tenses. States are normally expressed with simple tenses. However, in some cases, when we use continuous tenses with short states, two things can happen: either we use it to emphasize the temporary nature of the action, or the meaning of the verb may completely change. For example:
It means I am considering moving. I am in the process of deciding.
It means right now, at the moment of speaking, I am enjoying this thing.
With 'hope', you can use the continuous tense. Because at the moment of speaking, you are expressing a wish for something that might happen in the future.
Some verbs denote an action. Actions have a distinct beginning and end. But not all actions have the same duration. Some actions take hours and some take only seconds. Therefore, we can divide them into three groups:
- Long actions: Those that their time duration is long and it may take several hours.
- Short actions: Those that their time duration is very short and it may take mere seconds.
- Processes: They neither belong to the category of long actions nor short actions. Instead, they demonstrate ongoing change and progress in general.
1. Long Actions
Using Simple and Continuous Tenses to Show Long Actions
Long actions can take a specific period of time and they have approximately one to several hours. Many movement activities are in this category. With long actions, we use continuous tenses. Let's take a look at some examples:
Using the continuous tense with long actions puts emphasis on the ongoingness of the action at the moment of speaking.
Many verbs of movement are like this. By using continuous we are emphasizing on the temporary action that is taking place at the moment of speaking.
If we use continuous tenses with a long action, we are emphasizing the temporariness and the fact that the action is happening right now at the moment of speaking. It is not a habit or a routine.
By using simple tenses, we indicate that the action described is a habitual or routine occurrence that happens regularly.
This shows that walking in the night is a habit or a routine action that takes place regularly.
2. Short Actions
Using Continuous Tenses to Show Short Actions
Short actions are those kinds of actions that will only take a few seconds. They do not have a long duration. Short actions can be categorized into two groups: repeatable and non-repeatable actions (process).
Using continuous tenses with the first group shows that the said action is repeated several times. And with the second group, continuous tenses mean that the said action is in progress. For example:
Using simple present tenses to show short actions means that the action is a fact. But, using past simple tenses represents a narrative style and can be used to describe a story.
The new company
Using Continuous Tenses to Show Processes
Processes express a change in condition or state in their argument. They describe a transition or transformation. Note that when describing the change, the present simple tense should not be used. We should use the present continuous tense ongoing changes. Things that go through a process do not usually go back to their previous forms. They are mostly irretrievable.
Using simple tenses with processes changes the context of the verb, and the sentence no longer shows an ongoing process, rather it shows a general fact about something.
Verbs That Can Be Both
Some verbs can have both state and action meanings based on a different context. A sentence like 'he works in a bank' may be either state or action, according to the context. In some contexts, the verb 'work' relates to a state (a profession), In some contexts, it can be used as an action when 'work' describes an ongoing action.
'Have' indicates ownership, here.
'Have' indicates eating, here.
Verbs like 'smell', 'taste', 'see', 'feel', and 'hear' can be used both as state and action verbs. For example, we use 'smell' as a state verb to describe how somebody or something smells. But 'smell' can also be an action verb describing the act of smelling something.
'Smell' refers to her odor, here.
'Smell' means: the act of putting your nose near something and breathing in so that you can discover its characteristics with your nose.