Most people think of verbs as “action words.” But they actually come in two kinds: action verbs and stative verbs. Here, we will look at the difference between the two so you can use them with confidence in your writing.
What Are Action Verbs?
An action verb (or dynamic verb) describes an action performed (physically or mentally) by a person, animal or object. For example:
The ballerinas leap gracefully across the stage.
We learned about cacti at school today.
These are action verbs because they describe a dynamic action (e.g., leaping) or process (e.g., learning). They also have duration, meaning they take place over a period of time (i.e., they describe actions that start and finish).
Dynamic verbs can be used in the continuous tenses. This means they have “-ing” forms (e.g., leaping or learning) that we can use to describe ongoing actions. For instance, we could adapt the examples above as follows:
The ballerinas are leaping gracefully across the stage.
We were learning about cacti at school yesterday.
This is much less common with stative verbs, as we will see below.
What Are Stative Verbs?
A stative verb (or state verb) describes a state of being. This is usually something that does not change or that does not occur over a period of time in the same way as an active verb does.
Stative verbs can refer to various states, including thoughts, emotions, perceptions, relations, and qualities:
Timmy still believes in Santa.
I love grammar.
She smells of cheese.
The box contains many chocolates.
This elephant weighs a ton.
The common factor is that they describe a state of being or the way something is, not an action a person or object is performing in the present. As a result, we cannot usually use the continuous tenses with stative verbs:
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Simple present:You seem tired. ✓
Simple continuous:You are seeming tired. ✗
Simple past:Harry liked to have nap after lunch. ✓
Past continuous:Harry was liking to have a nap after lunch. ✗
One potential point of confusion is that some verbs can be either active or stative. We will look at how this works below.
Verbs That Work Both Ways
Some verbs can be either active or stative depending on the context.
But “smell” can also describe the act of smelling something:
She smelled the flower.
And since this describes a subject performing a dynamic action with a duration, “smell” here is an active verb. The rule about not using continuous tenses with stative verbs still applies when a word can be either active or stative. Using “smell” again, for instance, we can see the difference below:
She is smelling the flower. ✓
She is smelling of cheese. ✗
This is the difference between a state of being (e.g., someone’s personal odor) and an action (e.g., using the sense of smell to experience an odor).
Summary: Action Verbs and Stative Verbs
Essentially, the differences between stative and action verbs are:
Action verbs actions performed (physically or mentally) by a person, animal or object. The “-ing” forms of active verb can be used in the continuous tenses to describe an ongoing action.
Stative verbs describe a state of being, such as what something is, feels, or possesses. They cannot typically be used with the continuous tenses.
We hope this clarifies the difference between stative and dynamic verbs. But if you’d like any more help with your grammar, why not enlist one of our professional proofreaders to make sure your writing is always error free?