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 therefore unchanging throughout their entire time.
We do not have state or action verbs, we have state and action contexts.
Using Simple Tenses to Show States
Some concepts truly seem permanent because it feels like they have been this way for years. For states, we must almost always use simple tenses. Some long states must always be used with simple tenses. For example:
- Possession: Owning and being in possession of a thing or characteristics. It can also refer to family and other relations.
using 'have' in the progressive no longer conveys the meaning of 'possession'. It refers to 'expecting a child to be born.'
These senses of 'have' are not used in the continuous tense. Using continuous tense means 'pretending to' which in this context does not make sense.
- 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 continuous tense.
is measuring 6 x 6 meters.')
This is a state. You cannot use continuous tenses with it. Because measurement is a concept that is inherent. It does not change.
All the toys
fitting in the box.')
You cannot use continuous tenses with these states. Because they do not denote an actions. They show how things are or have been.
'Deserve' is not used in the continuous.
- Perceptions and Cognitions: Those believes 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 live, 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 has about something that are not very likely to change.
Using simple tenses implies that this is a fact. It is not a temporary thing.
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 think 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 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 continuous with this long state, shows that we mean he is acting like a 13 years old. It is not a fact. It is a short temporary thing.
This is an action. So we are using continuous tense.
With states, the emphasis is on the permanent nature of the meaning. Therefore it is possible to use it in continuous terms. States normally are expressed with simple tenses. However, if we use continuous tenses with short states, two of these things happen:
Either we use it to put emphasis on the shortness of the action. Or the meaning of the verb completely changes. 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.
However, with 'hope' you can use continuous tense. Because at the moment of speaking you wish for something and there is a chance it 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 are neither long nor short. They show 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 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.
But using simple tenses we are saying that the said action is a habit or a routine thing 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 on the run and is in the process. 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 we can use it to describe a story.
The new company
Using Continuous Tenses to Show Processes
Processes express a change of condition or state in their argument. They describe a change of state. Note that when describing the change, the present simple tense should not be used. We should use the present continuous tense for things that are changing. 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 a 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 an action in a context where 'work' describes an action.
'Have' indicates ownership, here.
'Have' indicates eating, here.
Verbs like 'smell, taste, see, feel, hear' can be both state or action verbs. For example, we use 'smell' as a state verb to describe how somebody or something smells and what's their odor. 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.