Mental-State Verbs

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

mental state verbs
Jay David Atlas points out that a verb such as see or believe "can be used as a mental-activity, quasi-performative verb and not just a mental-state verb" ("Expressing Regret and Avowing Belief" in Pragmatics and Autolexical Grammar, 2011). Epoxydude/Getty Images

In English grammar and speech-act theory, a mental-state verb is a verb with a meaning related to understanding, discovering, planning, or deciding. Mental-state verbs refer to cognitive states that are generally unavailable for outside evaluation. Also known as a mental verb.

Common mental-state verbs in English include know, think, learn, understand, perceive, feel, guess, recognize, notice, want, wish, hope, decide, expect, prefer, remember, forget, imagine, and believe.

Letitia R. Naigles notes that mental-state verbs are "notoriously polysemous, in that each is associated with multiple senses" ("Manipulating the Input" in Perception, Cognition, and Language, 2000).

Examples and Observations

  • Mental and Performative Meanings
    "[T]he meanings of mental verbs are propositional: when a speaker uses the verb recognize as a mental verb, e.g. in the sentence Of course I recognize your handwriting, the speaker refers only to his or her role as the experiencer of a mental process. In contrast, the performative meaning of recognize, as in the sentence I hereby recognize Mr. Smith, presupposes interpersonal elements inherent to the speech act situation, such as the social relationship between the speaker and interlocutors."
    (Elizabeth Closs Traugott and Richard Dasher, "On the Historical Relation Between Mental and Speech Act Verbs in English and Japanese." Papers from the 7th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, ed. by Anna Giacalone-Ramat et al., 1987)
  • Mental State Verbs and Recursion
    "[O]ne of the hallmarks of human language is recursion, or the ability to embed one sentence inside of another sentence, like Russian nested dolls. . . . Mental state verbs such as think and know provide semantic scaffolding for creating complex sentences with embedding (Klein, Moses, & Jean-Baptiste, 2010). Mental state verbs can act like action verbs, fitting into the canonical subject-verb format, as in I know that and I think so. But mental state verbs are about the contents of our minds, which we express as sentences, and so their meaning supports the syntactic process of embedding a sentence in the object position to form sentences like: I know Mommy likes flowers and I think Daddy's sleeping."
    (David Ludden, The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach. SAGE, 2016)
  • Mental State Verbs in Argumentative Speech and Writing
    "Mental verbs are useful for qualifying facts and opinions; for example, Many people think that, is often more effective in an argument than It is a fact that . . .. The latter, by being an absolute statement, forces the reader into either total agreement or disagreement, while the former allows room for argument."
    (Peter Knapp and Megan Watkins, Genre, Text, Grammar: Technologies for Teaching and Assessing Writing. UNSW, 2005) 
  • The Nonagentive Character of Mental State Verbs
    "[I]n English, the nonagentive character of mental state verbs is manifested by the preference for the dative preposition to rather than the agentive preposition by in the passive (in consequence, the passive is stative):
    (81) ?*Tom's teaching ability is known by all his colleagues.
    (82) Tom's teaching ability is known to all his colleagues."
    (William Croft, Syntactic Categories and Grammatical Relations: The Cognitive Organization of Information. The University of Chicago Press, 1991)
  • Auxiliary Verbs Associated With Performative, Mental-State, and Mental-Act Verbs
    "The auxiliaries most associated with performatives are 'make,' 'give,' and 'issue,' whereas the mental-state verbs share 'have' (to have a belief) along with a host of interesting alternatives. One can 'nourish' a hope, 'cherish' a belief, and 'hide' an intention. What we 'hold' in some mental state, we can 'issue' in some illocutionary act. Mental-act verbs, as might be expected, lie in between. Some, such as 'decide,' 'choose,' and 'identify,' share 'make' with performatives, but not 'issue,' except in 'issuing a decision' (in which case the verb functions as a performative)."
    (Benjamin Lee, Talking Heads: Language, Metalanguage, and the Semiotics of Subjectivity. Duke University Press, 1997)
  • Learning Mental-State Verbs (Language Acquisition)
    "[A]bstract mental state verbs appear early and are used quite frequently by children as young as 3 and 4 years. . . .

    "Apparently, children (and speakers in general) learn about the invisible referents of mental state verbs by first associating these verbs with the performance of particular sorts of communicative acts, and later focusing the reference of the verb on particularly salient features of those acts--namely, on the mental states of communicative agents. . . .

    "Intuitively, it seems unsurprising that children should master the more formulaic and pragmatically loaded depictive uses of mental state verbs before they take on truly referential and compositional uses; but it is actually not obvious why this should be the case. The fact is, the pragmatic uses are not really so simple. The pragmatics of hedging implicit in the use of a formula like [I think] crucially depends on an ability to calculate the potential risks to oneself and to one's audience involved in an act of assertion. Inasmuch as children are able to use such formulae appropriately in spontaneous discourse, it would seem that they can make such calculations, at least unconsciously."
    (Michael Israel, "Mental Spaces and Mental Verbs in Early Child English." Language in the Context of Use: Discourse and Cognitive Approaches to Language, ed. by Andrea Tyler, Yiyoung Kim, and Mari Takada. Mouton de Gruyter, 2008)
  • Displaying Interpretive Function
    "Students of discourse have distinguished exposition styles that call attention to the person and role of the speaker and those that mask or background the speaker. The difference is marked by an absence or presence of 'frames' that comment upon the conversational situation. Some of these frames are obvious, like the introductory, self-depreciating jokes to encourage audience-speaker bonding. Some are subtle, like the use of mental verbs, such as 'I think that . . .,' or verbs of assertion, such as 'I contend that . . ..' I will refer to mental verbs and verbs of assertion collectively as 'mental state verbs.' . . .

    "[M]ental state verbs allow a speaker to stop short of direct assertion, framing a statement as product of the mind of the speaker rather than presenting it as unfiltered fact in the world. Compare the direct statement, 'The sky is blue,' and the framed statements, 'The sky seems blue,' or 'I think the sky is blue,' or 'I swear, that sky is blue.' The framed statements are said to mark uncertainty because they signal that the assertion reflects a fallible thought process. Although mental state verbs have been classified by some scholars as signs of deference or powerlessness, they are ambiguous and versatile expressions. In my own research, I have found that they can represent not only uncertainty, but also an openness to negotiation in the domains in which they are used and an openness to the thoughts and opinions of a listener. . . .

    "[M]ental state verbs seem directly related to interpretive function, but ambiguously related to the speaker's authority and comfort, either as an organizer of the conversational flow or as an interpreter of authoritative texts."
    (Peggy Cooper Davis, "Performing Interpretation: A Legacy of Civil Rights Lawyering in Brown v. Board of Education." Race, Law, and Culture: Reflections on Brown v. Board of Education, ed. by Austin Sarat. Oxford University Press, 1997)