Knowing whether a verb is active or stative is essential to use English verbs in the correct tense and format. To give you a helping hand and propel you towards fluency, here is a complete overview of how this works.
Active vs stative verbs
While we usually think of English verbs as “action words”, verbs also function as “feeling words”. In fact, in the English language, there are two categories of verbs: active and stative verbs. Learning as many verbs as you can helps you talk more about what you do and how you feel and is an important part of developing advanced English speaking skills.
Active verbs (also called dynamic verbs) express a physical action. These are verbs like run, jump, swim, and cook.
On the other hand, stative verbs express a state or condition. There are verbs like feel, know, and love.
Here’s an example scenario to clarify the difference:
You meet (active) a bear and feel (stative) the urge to run away.
You are frightened (stative) and shivering (active).
Suddenly, you recall (stative) the survival class you attended (active) last month, and know (stative) how to escape (active) the encounter.
You take (active) a deep breath, relax (active) your body, and hold (active) your ground.
Depending on the context and tense, some verbs can be active or stative. I’ll go over more about how this works in the next sections.
Active verbs and their uses
We use active verbs to express an action performed by the subject of the sentence:
You are running too slow.
I drank too much beer yesterday.
In the first example, the subject is performing the act of running. The person is actively moving forward by putting one foot in front of the other at a good pace.
In the second example, the subject performed the act of drinking. They were actively picking up a glass of beer and swallowing its content.
Active verbs can be used in both present simple and present participle forms. When you use an active verb, the focus of the sentence is on the action.
Stative verbs and their uses
We use stative verbs in English to describe how the subject feels towards the object of the sentence. For example:
I like reading sci-fi books.
She understands English well.
We have a younger brother.
These sentences express a condition or a status. Your liking of sci-fi books is a characteristic of yours, and having a younger brother is something that happened to you – you did nothing to get one.
To help make sense of stative verbs, we can divide them into subcategories:
- Verbs of opinion and perception: such as imagine, understand, and believe
- Possessive verbs: such as have, belong, and own
- Sensing verbs: such as sense, smell, and touch
- Verbs of emotion: such as love, hate, and dislike
- Verbs of quality: such as need, include, and consist
Stative verbs can’t be used in their present participle form since they usually describe things that don’t change. For example:
I love dogs (correct)
I am loving dogs. (incorrect)
My grandad owns 3 cars. (correct)
My grandad is owning 3 cars. (incorrect)
The issue with the present participle is that “loving dogs” is a condition that doesn’t happen in a specific timeframe. You just like them in general. The same goes for “owning cars.” If you own 3 cars, then you always own them, and you aren’t just owning them at the present.
A famous exception: There is a famous fast-food chain whose slogan uses “loving” (I think you know who I’m referring to). It is grammatically correct in this case, because “loving” is referring to the act of “enjoying” (which by the way is a stative verb but is almost always used in its participle form). English, hooray!
Verbs that can be either active or stative
There are many verbs that can be active or stative, depending on the context. In most cases, these are stative verbs used with an active meaning.
Consider the example of “love” in the previous section. When used as a feeling of love towards someone or something, it is a stative verb. But it becomes active when you use it to express something you are enjoying at the moment. Here are a few examples:
I love chocolate → stative, your love for chocolate.
I am loving this party! → active, you are enjoying the party you are currently attending.
I have a cat → stative, “have” indicates possession.
I am having a blast → active, you are having a blast at the moment.
I think you are a great person → stative, “think” indicates an opinion.
I am thinking about the wedding → active, you are thinking about an event that happened or will happen.
She is funny → stative, the subject is always funny and it’s part of who she is.
She is being funny → active, she is being funny now. Her actions are what’s making her funny at the moment.
Sensing verbs in English
Sensing verbs like smell, touch, and taste can also be stative or active depending on their meaning:
Chocolate tastes great → stative, tasting great is an intrinsic characteristic of chocolate.
I am tasting this drink → active, you are currently tasting a drink, maybe to try it out, or to see if there’s anything odd in it.
Acid jazz sounds funky → stative, sounding funky is a characteristic of acid jazz.
The guitar is sounding like a screeching record → active, the guitar is making a screeching sound.
As a former business English teacher, I completely understand how this looks rather confusing. But it’s one of those elements that if you practice speaking English enough, you’ll start to recognise the difference without even thinking about it.