Is there some rule of thumb to successfully distinguish stative verbs from nonstative ones?

1 Answer 1


The Aspect tag-wiki mentions three fairly reliable tests:

  • Events may be employed with the progressive construction; states ordinarily may not.

      John is buying me a beer.
    John is liking beer.

  • When employed in a main clause modified by a perfective when clause, events are understood to follow what is described in the when clause; states are understood to start before and continue during what is described in the when clause.

      When I met John he liked beer.
      When I met John he bought me a beer.

  • Events can serve as the complement in Wh- cleft constructions; statives cannot.

      What John did was buy me a beer.
    What John did was like beer.

Note, however, that I say 'fairly' reliable. Many verbs have both stative and eventive senses; and even those which ordinarily do not may be 'recategorized' by use in particular contexts or particular constructions. Be, for instance, is about as stative as you can get; but when it is cast in the progressive it has an 'activity' sense = 'behave':

John is being a jerk. = John is behaving like a jerk.

The Aspect tag-wiki gives some more examples.

  • "What John did was like beer" would in practice be accepted pretty widely as response to a question like, "What did John do to deserve you being so rude to him?". Asked of a wine-drinker, I suppose. In that situation, the phrasing of the answer might intentionally highlight that the question contains a wrong assumption (the cause was an action), so would you say that it's understood as intentionally ungrammatical, not really accepted? Or just that this is an exception to "fairly reliably"? Sep 15, 2014 at 23:13
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    Oh, and it suddenly occurs to me that "like" is now eventive, thanks to Facebook ;-) Sep 15, 2014 at 23:18
  • @SteveJessop I'm liking it ;} ... Yeah, the really interesting things about language are where the categories break down. "What we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise." -Kenneth Burke Sep 15, 2014 at 23:51

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