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A stative verb is one that describes a state of being, in contrast to a dynamic verb which describes an action. The difference can be categorized by saying that stative verbs are static or unchanging throughout their entire duration, whereas dynamic verbs describe a process that changes over time.1 Many languages distinguish between these two types in terms of how they can be used grammatically.2
The same verb may act as stative or dynamic. An English phrase like "he plays the piano" may be either stative or dynamic, according to context.
Some languages use the same verbs for dynamic and stative situations, while other use different (but often etymologically related) verbs with some kind of qualifiers to distinguish between the usages. A stative verb is often intransitive, while a corresponding one would be transitive. Compare, for example, modern English with modern Swedish and German.
in an upright position)
(i.e., be on fire)
Some languages even make distinction when dealing with stative and dynamic verbs in sentences. In German, for instance, several prepositions (Wechselpräpositionen - "changing prepositions") take different noun cases when accompany stative and dynamic verbs. For stative verbs, dative case is taken, whereas the accusative case is taken by the preposition when describing a dynamic verb. For example:
- Ich lege den Stift auf den Tisch. (I lay the pen on(to) the table.) - Den here is masculine definite article in accusative case. lege - infinitive: legen
- Der Stift liegt auf dem Tisch. (The pen lies on the table.) - Dem here is masculine definite article in dative case. liegt - infinitive: liegen
The same scheme also applies in stative and dynamic verbs in general, i.e. when the verb is stative (albeit the dynamic counterpart is non-existent), the preposition will always take dative, and vice versa.
- Ich bin in der Schule. (I am at school. - literally I am in the school.) - Der here is feminine definite article in dative case, since the verb bin (infinitive: sein - to be) is a stative verb.
- Ich gehe in die Schule. (I go to school. - literally I go in the school.) - Die here is feminine definite article in accusative case, since the verb gehe (infinitive: gehen - to go) is a dynamic verb.
- Ich gehe zur Schule. zur = zu + der (I go to school. - literally I go to the school.) - Der here is feminine definite article in dative case. Note that zu is not a Wechselpräposition and always takes dative case.
- Wo bist du? - Im Kino. im = in + dem (Where are you? - In the cinema.) - Dem here is neuter definite article in dative case. bist - infinitive: sein
- Wohin gehst du? - Ins Kino. ins = in + das (Where are you going? - To the cinema.) - Das here is neuter definite article in accusative case. gehst - infinitive: gehen
Additionally, in English and many other languages, stative and dynamic verbs differ in whether or not they can use the progressive aspect. Dynamic verbs such as "go" can be used in the progressive (I am going to school) whereas stative verbs such as "know" cannot (*I am knowing the answer). In other languages statives can be used in the progressive as well: in Korean, for example, the sentence 미나가 인호를 사랑하고있다 (Mina is loving Inho) is perfectly valid.3
In some languages stative and dynamic verbs will use entirely different morphological markers on the verbs themselves. For example, in the Mantauran dialect of Rukai, an indigenous language of Taiwan, the two types of verbs take different prefixes in their finite forms, with dynamic verbs taking o- and stative verbs taking ma-. Thus, the dynamic verb "jump" is o-coroko in the active voice, while the stative verb "love" is ma-ðalamə. This sort of marking is characteristic of other Formosan languages as well.4
In English, a verb that expresses a state can also express the entrance into a state. This is called inchoative aspect. The simple past is sometimes inchoative. For example, the present-tense verb in the sentence "He understands his friend" is stative, while the past-tense verb in the sentence "Suddenly he understood what she said" is inchoative, because it means "He began to understand". On the other hand, the past-tense verb in "At one time, he understood her" is stative.
Likewise, in Ancient Greek, a verb whose imperfect expresses a state (e.g., ebasíleuon "I was king") may use the aorist to express entrance into the state (e.g., ebasíleusa "I became king"). But the aorist can also simply express the state as a whole, with no focus on the beginning of the state (eíkosi étē ebasíleusa "I ruled for twenty years").
Apart from Dowty, Z. Vendler and C. S. Smith5 have also written influential work on aspectual classification of verbs.
Dowty gives some tests to decide whether an English verb is stative.6 They are as follows:
- Statives do not occur in the progressive (the * before a sentence means that it is ungrammatical or absurd to most native English speakers):
- John is running. (non-stative)
- *John is knowing the answer.
- They cannot be complements of "force":
- I forced John to run.
- *I forced John to know the answer.
- They do not occur as imperatives.
- *Know the answer!
(The phrase "Know thyself!" is imperative, but it uses the archaic "know" as a dynamic verb.)
- They cannot appear in the pseudo-cleft construction:
- What John did was run.
- *What John did was know the answer.
Stative verbs are often divided into sub-categories, based on their semantics or syntax.
Semantic divisions mainly involve verbs that express someone's state of mind, or something's properties (of course, things can also be expressed via other language mechanisms as well, particularly adjectives). The precise categories vary by linguist. Huddleston and Pullum, for example, divide stative verbs into the following semantic categories: verbs of perception and sensation (see, hear), verbs of hurting (ache, itch), stance verbs (stand, sit), and verbs of cognition, emotion, and sensation (believe, regret).7 Novakov, meanwhile, uses the slightly different categories: verbs denoting sensations (feel, hear), verbs denoting reasoning and mental attitude (believe, understand), verbs denoting positions/stance (lie, surround), and verbs denoting relations (resemble, contain).8
Syntactic divisions involve the types of clause structures a verb may be used in ("*" indicates ungrammatical sentences):
John believes that Fido is a dog. *John believes on Fido barking. John believes Fido to bark.
*Joan depends that Fido is a dog. Joan depends on Fido barking. *Joan depends Fido to bark.
Jim loathes that Fido is a dog. *Jim loathes on Fido barking. *Jim loathes Fido to bark.
- Binnick, Robert I. 1991. Time and the Verb: a Guide to Tense and Aspect. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Michaelis, Laura A. 2011. Stative by Construction. Linguistics 49: 1359-1400.
- Lee, EunHee. 2006. "Stative Progressives in Korean and English." Journal of Pragmatics 38 (5) (May): 695–717.
- Zeitoun, Elizabeth. 2000. "Dynamic Vs Stative Verbs in Mantauran (Rukai)." Oceanic Linguistics 39 (2) (December): 415–427.
- Smith, Carlota S. 1991 ″The parameter of aspect″ Kluwer Academic Publisher Dordrecht ; Boston :
- Dowty, David R. 1979. Word Meaning and Montague Grammar : the Semantics of Verbs and Times in Generative Semantics and in Montague’s PTQ. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
- Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K Pullum. 2002. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Novakov, Predrag. 2009. "Dynamic-stative Distinction in English Verbs." Zbornik Matice Srpske Za Filologiju i Lingvistiku 52 (2): 187–195.