What Is a Stative Verb?

Contrast Them With Dynamic, or Action, Verbs

i'm lovin' it slogan

 McDonald's

In English grammar, a stative verb is a verb used primarily to describe a state of being (I am) or situation (I have). It's how something is, feels, or appears. These verbs don't show physical action (I run) or processes (It prints). Stative verbs can describe a mental or emotional state of being (I doubt) as well as a physical state (Kilroy was here). The situations illustrated by "state" verbs are unchanging while they last and can continue for a long or indefinite time period.

Key Takeaways: Stative Verbs

  • Stative verbs are not action or dynamic verbs. 
  • Stative verbs describe how something is or seems or a mental process.
  • Revise them out of your writing to increase imagery and details in a passage.

Common examples include be, have, like, seem, prefer, understand, belong, doubt, hate, and know, such as in the saying, "We are what we believe we are." These types of words are also known as being verbs (especially in the case of be, am, is, are, was, and were), or static verbs. Contrast them with dynamic verbs, which show action.

Types of Stative Verbs

Four types of stative verbs include: senses, emotion, being, and possession. There's no one "right" way to classify them, of course, and some words can fit in multiple categories, depending on context of their usage. Geoffrey Leach and colleagues group the four types this way:

"(a) Perception and sensation (e.g. see, hear, smell, hurt, taste)...
(b) Cognition, emotion, attitude (e.g. think, feel, forget, long, remember)...
(c) Having and being (e.g. be, have, have to, cost, require)...
(d) Stance (e.g. sit, stand, lie, live, face)"

(Geoffrey Leech, Marianne Hundt, Christian Mair, and Nicholas Smith, "Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study." Cambridge University Press, 2012)

Sensing Verbs

Senses and perception verbs include data coming into your five senses:

  • See
  • Hear
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Seem
  • Sound
  • Look
  • Sense

Emotion and Thought Verbs

Emotion and thought verbs include:

  • Love
  • Hate
  • Adore
  • Like
  • Despise
  • Doubt
  • Feel
  • Believe
  • Forget
  • Remember
  • Long
  • Agree/disagree
  • Enjoy
  • Need
  • Think
  • Recognize
  • Prefer
  • Understand
  • Suspect
  • Appear

Possession Verbs

Possession verbs include:

  • Have
  • Belong
  • Include
  • Own
  • Want

Being/Qualities Verbs

Verbs that describe states of being include:

  • Be/Are/Is
  • Weigh
  • Contain
  • Involve
  • Contain
  • Consist

Writing Advice: Revise Them Out

Some writing advice will tell you never to use "to be" verbs, but sometimes they're unavoidable. Of course, if you can revise a paragraph that has a bunch of lifeless verbs into one where there's more action, that's typically the way to go, as it makes your writing more dynamic and sensory for the reader. 

For example, look at the sentence, "His room was a mess." This description could mean a lot of things to different people, such as a neat freak vs. a clutter bug. But if you revise to include sensory imagery and more description, you'll have a much fuller experience for the reader and less ambiguity. Revised description: "Piles of dirty clothes rose from the floor, books and papers covered the desk, and trash overflowed the wastebasket."

Grammar: To Be but Not to Being...

Though stative verbs can be in the present, past, or future tenses, they're not usually in motion. That is, stative verbs usually don't occur in the progressive form (an -ing verb form paired with a helper, such as in are trying; you wouldn't say, for example, "I am having a pencil.") 

Of course, our malleable English language is made up of exceptions to the rules. Susan J. Behrens, in "Grammar: A Pocket Guide," notes, "[T]here is some advertising that plays with stative verbs. The McDonald's slogan I'm loving it uses a stative verb in the present progressive form" (Routledge, 2010). These types of usages are becoming more common, denoting conditions that are temporary, such as in, You're looking awesome tonight.

Some argue that you can't use them in the imperative mood (the command form, such as in the sentence Come with me), but there are plenty of exceptions here, too, because even though the contexts where you use them in this way would be pretty narrow, they still exist. You could give someone an item and say, "Have it." You could plead with someone, "Love me," or make a person bristle by forcefully imploring, "Understand this..."

Exceptions: Both Stative and Dynamic

English also has plenty of gray areas, where a word isn't always only in one or the other category—sometimes words are stative and sometimes active. As with so many things in English, it depends on context.

Sylvia Chalker and Tom McArthur explained, "It is generally more useful to talk of stative and dynamic meaning and usage [rather than types alone]....Some verbs belong to both categories but with distinct meanings, as with have in She has red hair [stative] and She is having dinner [active]" ("The Oxford Companion to the English Language." Oxford University Press, 1992).

Another example could be with the word feel. Someone can feel sad (a state of being), and a person can also physically feel a texture (an action). They can also tell others to check it out as well: Feel how soft! 

Or even think can be in both categories, even though it doesn't seem like a very dynamic process. Compare the usage of I think that's really lousy with the famous scene in "Back to the Future" when Biff comes up to George in the cafe and commands him, "Think, McFly! Think," while knocking on his head.