Definition and Examples of Psychological Verbs

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In English grammar, a psych verb is a verb (such as bore, frighten, please, anger, and disappoint) that expresses a mental state or event. English has more than 200 causative psych verbs. Also called a psychological verb, mental verb, experiencer verb, and emotive verb. (The term psych predicates is sometimes used to refer to both psych verbs and the psych adjectives derived from them.)

"Structuring the Argument" characterizes psych verbs as "stative verbs that express a psychological state and assign the role 'experiencer' (of that psychological state) to one of its arguments" (Bachrach, Asaf, et al.). Syntactically, there are two basic types of psych verb: those that have an experiencer as subject (for example, "I like rainy days") and those that have an experiencer as object ("Rainy days please me").

Examples and Observations

"In linguistic research, psychological ('psych') verbs are of great importance both from a theoretical and a cognitive perspective. In contrast to agentive verbs such as kill or write, psych verbs do not assign the thematic roles​ agent and patient, but rather express some psychological state and take an experiencer as one of their arguments (Primus 2004:377). The roles agent and experiencer are assumed to rank higher in the thematic hierarchy than the patient/theme role (e.g., Grimshaw, 1990; Pesetsky 1995; Primus 1999). Depending on the type of psych verb, argument linking differs substantially."
(Dröge et al.)

"Everything he had done so far had pleased Miles Calman."

"Dr. Nicholas greatly admired her crushed and splintered nose which he daily probed and peered at, exclaiming that he had never seen anything like it."


"I amused Emily; I almost always made her smile."


"That's how it goes; golf appeals to the idiot in us and the child."


Two Classes of Psych Verbs

​"[T]here are two classes of psych verbs in English, some verbs allowing the experiencer to appear in subject position, as in (22a), while others have the experiencer occurring in object position, as in (22b). The mapping of arguments to syntax appears to be arbitrary:

  • 22a. The children fear ghosts. (experiencer = subject)
  • 22b. Ghosts frighten the children. (experiencer = object)


Variation in Subject-Object Position

"The class of mental verbs (also known as 'psych verbs') includes verbs of perception, cognition and emotion. Variation in subject-object assignment is found both across languages and within a single language. ... English has some apparently synonymous verbs, one of which assigns the experiencer to subject position and the other assigns the experience to object position.

  • 2. I like classical music.
  • 3. Classical music pleases me.
  • 4. Ed fears the police.
  • 5. The police frighten Ed.

"However, some semantic differences appear in closer examination of the types of verbs that assign the experiencer to subject position ('experiencer-subject' verbs) and those that assign it to object position (either direct or indirect object position; 'experiencer-object' verbs). The following examples [from English] illustrate the pattern; experiencer-subject verbs are given in (a) and experiencer-object verbs in (b):

  • a. like, admire, detest, fear, despise, enjoy, hate, honor, love, esteem
  • b. please, scare, frighten, amuse, bore, astonish, surprise, terrify, thrill

The verbs in category (b) [...] represent a different causal-aspectual semantic type from the verbs in category (a)."


Agentive Transitives vs. Psych Verbs

"The distinction between thematic roles and grammatical functions can be observed when we compare agentive transitives with so-called 'psychological' verbs (henceforth psych verbs), i.e. those which describe a psychological event or state. Consider the following pair of sentences:

  • 33a. John reads the newspaper.
  • 33b. John likes the newspaper.

In both of these examples, John is the subject and the newspaper is the direct object. However, while in (33a) John is the Agent of the action described by read and the newspaper is the Patient of the action, in (33b) John has the thematic role of Experiencer, the person of whom the psychological state described by like holds, and the newspaper is what that state is about, the Theme. Psych verbs, unlike action transitives, can in fact distribute their thematic roles 'the other way around,' as it were, making the Theme the subject and the Experiencer the object: compare the newspaper pleases/amuses/annoys/appals John with (33b). This possibility gives rise to doublets of psych verbs which are very close in meaning but which distribute their thematic roles differently, such as like/please, fear/frighten, etc."


Resources and Further Reading

  • Adams, Alice. “Roses, Rhododendron.” The New Yorker, 19 Jan. 1976.
  • Bachrach, Asaf, et al. “Introduction.” Structuring the Argument Multidisciplinary Research on Verb Argument Structure, edited by Asaf Bachrach et al., vol. 10, John Benjamins, 2014. Language Faculty and Beyond.
  • Croft, William. “Case Marking and the Semantics of Mental Verbs.” Studies in Linguistics and Philosophy Semantics and the Lexicon, Edited by J. Pustejovsky, vol. 49, 1993, pp. 55-72., doi:10.1007/978-94-011-1972-6_5.
  • Dröge, Alexander, et al. “Luigi Piaci a Laura?” Structuring the Argument Multidisciplinary Research on Verb Argument Structure, edited by Asaf Bachrach et al., vol. 10, John Benjamins, 2014. Language Faculty and Beyond.
  • Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Key. “Crazy Sunday.” The American Mercury, Oct. 1932, pp. 209-220.
  • Roberts, Ian G. Diachronic Syntax. Oxford University, 2007.
  • Stafford, Jean. “The Interior Castle.” Partisan Review, 1946, pp. 519-532.
  • White, Lydia. Second Language Acquisition and Universal Grammar. Cambridge University, 2003.
  • Updike, John. Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf. Reprint ed., Fawcett Columbine, 1997.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Psychological Verbs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 29). Definition and Examples of Psychological Verbs. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Psychological Verbs." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).