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Non-Action Verbs & Exceptions

October 27, 2016

When learning the present progressive (or present continuous) tense, my students would often get confused by certain verbs that remain in the simple present even with a present progressive time marker like “now” or “right now.” These non‑action verbs (or stative verbs) also have many exceptions to the general rule.

Help is here! Try teaching your English language learners about non‑action verbs and exceptions using the tried-and-tested method below.

Categories of Non-Action Verbs

Non-action verbs are verbs that involve no movement or action. Students will remember common non‑action verbs more easily if you teach them the five main types of verbs. These categories include state, possession, feelings and needs, thought, and the senses. See examples in the chart below.

Remind students that progressive tenses (be + ‑ing verb) usually can’t be used with non‑action verbs (but see Exceptions below). This rule is especially important when students are learning the present progressive.

Non-Action Verbs and Exceptions Resource

Non-Action Verbs & Exceptions – Grammar & Usage Resources

Exceptions

For intermediate‑level learners and above, it is important to learn that there are many exceptions to the “non‑action verb = no progressive tense” rule because these exceptions are quite common.

A. Non-Action Verbs with Action Meanings

Many non‐action verbs have another meaning. If this second meaning is an action meaning, a progressive tense can be used.

  • My child is being a brat at the moment. (= misbehaving)
  • We are having dinner. (= eating)
  • She is having a baby. (= giving birth, delivering)
  • He is having fun. / He is having a good time. (= enjoying)
  • I am thinking of buying a new car. (= planning, deciding)
  • They are seeing a movie. (= watching)

Some non‑action verbs don’t have a change in meaning, but a progressive tense can be used to emphasize a longer, continuing action.

  • My son feels sick.
  • My son is feeling sick.
  • She has wanted a new dress for ages.
  • She has been wanting a new dress for ages.
  • I love Netflix.
  • I’m loving Netflix.

B. Action Verbs with Non‑Action Meanings

Some verbs that are usually action verbs can also change meaning. With the non‑action meaning, a progressive tense should not be used.

  • You are looking out the window. (action)
  • You look nervous. (non‑action)
  • You are looking nervous. (non‑action)
  • The children appeared at the window. (action)
  • They appear calm. (non‑action)
  • They are appearing calm. (non‑action)

Practice

Try our Simple Present Vs. Present Progressive lesson in the Grammar Practice Worksheets section for more practice with non‑action verbs. Note that this lesson will be updated in the next few months and will soon include grammar notes and charts. Subscribers can also download and print the Non‑Action Verbs & Exceptions PDF, which includes a second page of exceptions.

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Comments (34)

IULIA WEIR(Guest)

Very useful. Thanks.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome! Thanks for commenting.

Mayyah (Guest)

Thanks. very useful.
Is this sentence correct?

We are watching a film and we are enjoying it.

or we enjoy it.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mayyah,

'We are watching a film and (we are) enjoying it' is best. (You can drop the repeated 'we are.') They are both action verbs, so the -ing form sounds best to indicate the continuing action.

Ahmad (Guest)

Hello.when can we use ing with the verb understand? I heard ' are u understanding me?' In the movie Sicario.What's the difference between 'do you understand me? And are you understanding me?'

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Ahmad, there's no difference in meaning. The usage difference is that the -ing form is less common and used for emphasis.

Yousif (Guest)

Hi teacher Tanya
my name is yousif. From yemen
I have a question.
Which are correct sentences?
1-The police is still searching for the murder weapons .
2-The police are still searching for the murder weapons.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Yousif, #2 is correct. Collective nouns like 'the police' can be tricky, but we usually think of the police as the individual police officers, so it's best to use a plural verb.

Julia (Guest)

Why can't we use TOUCH in Continuous.... ??? ...

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Julia,

Good question. We can 'touch' in the continuous tense since it is an action verb. The non-action sense verb is 'feel,' not touch. Since we've already included 'feel' in the 'feelings and needs' category, I didn't include it again in the 'senses' category. I've changed it in the chart and in the post. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

siti (Guest)

Hi Tanya,
I would like to ask about these two sentences.
1) I have been knowing him - this is incorrect because we don't use stative verb with -ing right? then why the following sentence is correct?
2) I have been thinking about him. Isn't think is stative verb?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Siti,

If you look under Exceptions (A, Non-Action Verbs with Action Meanings) in the post above, you'll see that there are some cases where non-action verbs can take the -ing form and become active verbs. Sometimes the verb has a different meaning (like having = eating) and sometimes it just emphasizes a longer action, as in your thinking example.

You're right that your first sentence is incorrect. We almost never use 'know' as a active verb.

Your second sentence is actually correct. We use 'think' as a stative verb when we are saying our opinion (e.g., I think it's a good decision) but as an active verb when we are planning, deciding, or thinking continuously about something/someone (e.g., I am thinking about moving to Europe).

Kalai S.(Member)

Hi teacher.
Are not you speaking Spanish?
Are you not speaking Spanish?
Which is correct in English?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kalai,

The second one is correct, "Are you not speaking Spanish?" and the first one is incorrect.

Just be careful when using negative questions in English. We would normally only ask "Are you speaking Spanish?" Someone would normally answer "Yes, I am." or "No, I'm not."

Negative questions in English are asked to show surprise or get confirmation. In your example, perhaps the speaker couldn't recognize the difference between Spanish and Portuguese. Maybe the other person mentioned they were from Portugal, and the speaker was surprised when they realized it must have been Portuguese and not Spanish they were hearing. In that case, the speaker could ask "Are you not speaking Spanish?"

See section E of this blog post for more examples and explanations: https://ellii.com/blog/negative-forms

Kalai S.(Member)

And teacher I'm from Sri Lanka and my English teacher said are not you speaking Spanish and are you not speaking Spanish. Both are correct so I can use both in exam paper but you have said I can't use first one so what do I do teacher?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

"Are not you speaking Spanish?" is incorrect, so my advice is to not use it. You should only use "Are you not speaking Spanish?" during your exam.

Kalai S.(Member)

Cannot I say aren't you speaking speech?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Yes, you can say "Aren't you speaking [language]?" for the same reasons above, to express surprise or to confirm it. But we wouldn't say "speaking speech," we would say "speaking English" or "speaking Spanish." Be sure to include the name of the language.

Kalai S.(Member)

Hi teacher
Is this correct?
Forgive me. I called you without knowing what this phone number was. my doubt is we can't say knowing because is stative verb so how did there mention knowing? And can I use this phrase in my day to day life?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kalai, this is an excellent question! After a preposition (e.g., without) we must use a gerund (-ing) form even when a verb is stative. So "knowing" is correct after a preposition. Another example is "She was fine after being treated at the hospital."

One change in your example is that we would usually say "whose phone number this was" instead of "what this phone number was." So the correct sentence would be: Forgive me. I called you without knowing whose phone number this was.

Kalai S.(Member)

So can we use state verb + ing verb after prepositions?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

That's right. We normally use the gerund form of a verb after a preposition, even if the verb is a stative (non-action) verb.

Sara Portillo(Guest)

Hi, Is assume an non action verb?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Sara, great question! "Assume" is an action verb, actually, so we can use it with the progressive tenses (e.g., "I'm assuming that you've heard the news."). However, I think it's safe to say that it's more commonly used with the non-progressive tenses (e.g., "I assume that you've heard the news.").

Oscar Zepeda(Guest)

Thanks a lot!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Oscar!

Lilian A.(Member)

Thank you for this efficient lesson. I have a question. We have some verbs that can be used in both present simple and present continuous. How can we easily identify whether the verb is action or non-action?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Lilian, in general, I tell my students to think of movement. If there is movement, it's usually an action verb. Memorizing the categories of non-action verbs helps a lot too. For the exceptions, it can be trickier to figure it out. They will get used to hearing certain expressions (e.g., I'm having dinner), but it also helps to think of the actual meaning (e.g., have = eat, an action) of each case (vs. I have a dog, have = own, no action). Hope that helps!

Juliet Solomons(Guest)

Can we use non-action verbs (e.g. know, like, be etc.) in a continuous/progressive tense?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Juliet, great question, and the answer is yes! Take a look above (in this blog post) under the heading "Exceptions." Under "A. Non-Action Verbs with Action Meanings," you will find plenty of examples of when and where this is possible.

Helia (Guest)

Hello. Is this sentence correct : I'm tired because I'm not sleeping well now. Or this one: I'm tired because I don't sleep well now.
Thanks in advance🙏🌺

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Helia,

Great question! Your examples are both correct. Since "sleep" is an action verb, you can use either verb tense depending on what you want the function to be.

For the present progressive (I'm not sleeping well now), the function is a continuing action in the present. You could say this if it is the night you're not sleeping, or more generally for the recent present. The meaning of "now" here is "right now" or quite recently (i.e., a day or two).

For the simple present (I don't sleep well now), the function is a repeated action. You could use this if the situation has been ongoing for a few days or many days. The meaning of "now" here is more like "nowadays." Hope that helps!

Mina A.(Member)

Hello Tanya,
Thanks for all the great information.
I have a question.
As we know, present progressive tense can also be used for talking about the future.
Is this rule about the stative verbs not getting -ing still applied when we're talking about the future?
For example:
"I'm needing a car right now" is wrong.
but what about:
"I'm needing a car when I get to London in two days"?
Is it still wrong?
or
"I'm wanting a cold drink when I get home in two hours. It's really hot today!"

I hope I asked my question in a clear way.
Thank you in advance for sparing your valuable time and answering my question.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Mina,

This is a great question! The answer is yes, the rule about not using the -ing form with non-action verbs applies whether we're using it for the present or the future. For example, we shouldn't use "I'm needing, I'm wanting, etc." when referring to the present or future time. I.e., "I'm needing a car now" sounds just as odd as "I'm needing a car tomorrow."

However, along with common, well-known, acceptable exceptions such as "I'm having dinner" (present or future), we sometimes can and do use the -ing form with other verbs when we really want to emphasize the "continuing" (-ing) aspect of the verb. So, for example, you might hear "I'm really wanting to try that" even though it's technically ungrammatical. The meaning is similar to "I've really been wanting to try that" or "I really want to try that." It doesn't matter if you're referring to the present or future here—the takeaway is that yes, you might hear it, but no, it's not common (and not fully "correct" or acceptable).

Should we teach this to our students? Since it's potentially quite confusing, I would only introduce it to an advanced-level class as an interesting grammar point to discuss (rare exceptions to a "rule"), and I'd tell them to avoid using it themselves since it will sound wrong to most people. Hope that helps!

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