iterative (verb)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights," says William Shatner as Commander Buck Murdoch, "blinking and beeping and flashing" (Airplane II: The Sequel). (Paramount Pictures. 1982)


An iterative is a verb or verb form indicating that an action is (or was) repeated. Also called frequentativehabitual verb, iterative activity, and iterative aspect.

In English grammar, several verbs ending in -er (chatter, patter, stutter) and -le (babble, cackle, rattle) suggest repeated or habitual action.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

From the Latin, "again"

Examples and Observations

  • "[The frequentative] is an ancient trick of word formation, now obsolete, in which an ending created a verb to suggest some action is often repeated. The one most often used was -le. So crackle is the frequentative of crack, gamble of game (in the wagering sense) and sparkle of spark. Most examples are so old that they're based on verbs that no longer exist, at least in the sense in which they were used when the ending was attached to them; others are disguised by changes in spelling."
    (Michael Quinion, Why Is Q Always Followed by U? Penguin, 2010)
  • "Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry."
    (John Lennon at the 1963 Variety Show, in which the Beatles played for an audience that included the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret)
  • "They blabber about cases, especially high-profile cases like this one, just as doctors blabber about patients; and cops in the same family are practically joined at the hip."
    (Joan Brady, Bleedout. Simon & Schuster, 2005)
  • "I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye."
    (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925)
  • "Long, long after you flush she goes on plashing and gargling and would do so forever did I not get out of bed again to jiggle the handle."
    (Richard Selzer, Letters to a Best Friend, ed. by Peter Josyph. State University of New York Press, 2009)
  • Origins of Iteratives
    "We vaguely detect a common feature present in chuckle, cackle, jiggle, joggle, fizzle, sizzle, drizzle, and tootle. All of them denote repeated actions or actions that last long, and they owe their meaning to -le (such verbs are therefore called frequentative or iterative). . . .
    "Many frequentative verbs came to English from northern German and Dutch, where they are extremely common."
    (Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins . . . and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. Oxford Univ. Press, 2005)
  • Iterative Activities and Progressive Forms
    "Iterative activities are quick successions of punctual acts, which are conceived of as constituting a single durational act. . . .
    Philip was kicking his sister.
    [T]he progressive compels us to view the event as being extended in time. Since a punctual act cannot be extended in time, we interpret the event as a quick succession of acts of kicking, i.e. as an activity involving iteration or an iterative activity. The separate punctual events are seen as constituting a single durational event which is internally multiplex. This also applies to progressive sentences such as My friend is nodding his head, My dog is banging against the door, Angela is skipping in front of the class, etc. While we may nod our head only once, we normally bang against doors and try to skip with a rope several times. However it is only when we use the progressive aspect that we view these distinct sub-events as constituting a single iterative event."
    (René Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • Coordination and Iterative Meaning
    - "Iterative meaning is also suggested by some types of coordination, as in
    I wrote and wrote but they didn't reply.
    They were running up and down the stairs." (Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)
    - "He called a meeting. His staff did not respond. He called and called and called. Nothing."
    (Marla Frazee, The Boss Baby. Beach Lane Books, 2010)
  • The Lighter Side of Iteratives
    "We've all got our switches, lights, and knobs to deal with, Striker. I mean, down here there are literally hundreds and thousands of blinking, beeping, and flashing lights, blinking and beeping and flashing. They're flashing and they're beeping. I can't stand it anymore! They're blinking and beeping and flashing! Why doesn't somebody pull the plug!"
    (William Shatner as Buck Murdock in Airplane II: The Sequel, 1982)

Pronunciation: IT-eh-re-tiv

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "iterative (verb)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). iterative (verb). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "iterative (verb)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).