Stative verbs – I'm lovin' them

You know much more than you think you do about something you may never have heard of.

Did you enjoy the holidays?

And are you still enjoying your local free-range chicken salad with organic baby spinach and house-made extra-virgin olive oil dressing, or can I clear your plate?

The word of the week, dear readers, is not "enjoy" but rather a concept that the sentences above illustrate: stative verbs, verbs that express not action (walk, run, fly) but states: thought (know, believe), possession (have, own), sensation (hear, see), or emotion (hate, love, enjoy).

I've been doing some research, and just as the hero of Molière's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," M. Jourdain, discovers he's been speaking in prose all his life, I find myself suddenly aware of stative verbs.

One of the rules I'm newly conscious of is that stative verbs aren't used with progressive tenses. We say, "I am reading her new book," but "I love the new menu at Antonio's."

When McDonald's bends this rule with the slogan "I'm lovin' it," the company is continuing a tradition in the advertising world of tweaking standard usage to call attention to itself.

Sometimes a stative verb is used as a replacement for a nonstative one. Shops that post signs saying, "Please enjoy your beverages outside" are really trying to say, "Do not bring your latte in here and dribble it on our merchandise." And the server quoted earlier is less interested in your "enjoyment" than in clearing the table.

Some verbs cross over from stative to dynamic.

In the sentence "He thinks his brother-in-law is an idiot," "thinks" is a stative verb, representing an opinion, which may, alas, be unlikely to change.

But in the sentence "He's still thinking about which offer to accept," the verb "think" is what some linguists call a dynamic verb.

My new learning about stative verbs has cast new light on a particular Bible passage (King James Version) that has long nagged at my inner grammarian without my quite knowing why. It's the account, in Mark's Gospel, of Jesus' encounter with a man with "great possessions" who asked how he might "inherit eternal life."

Jesus tells him to obey the Ten Commandments and to sell his possessions and give to the poor. My inner grammarian has always been fascinated by a brief sentence between the rich man's question and Jesus' answer: "Jesus beholding him loved him."

It combines a dynamic verb, "behold," intimately with a stative one, "love." The odd combination, by the way, is not unique to the King James Version.

The J.B. Phillips translation, however, uses dynamic verbs for both actions: "Jesus looked steadily at him, and his heart warmed towards him." This version sounds more natural. But note that "Jesus" is no longer the subject of the second verb; instead, it's "heart."

It's fascinating to see how language gets at issues such as time, space, causation, and agency, and how it addresses the differences between, for instance, outward actions, controlled by conscious volition ("He walked the dog") and the inward actions that just happen without that volition ("He realized he would not finish by the deadline").

All this goes on without conscious thought, at least in the case of the native speaker. A month ago I couldn't have told you that one doesn't use stative verbs with progressive tenses. But now I know – consciously, that is. It's another case of rules we absorb without realizing it.

I keep learning more about verbs and the way they work, and, as they say at McDonald's, I'm lovin' it.

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