You should try the lessons on present simple and present continuous before you study this lesson. When you are ready, you can test yourself on the difference between state and action verbs.

The difference between states and actions

She's eating an apple (action).Remember that the present continuous can talk about temporary actions which are in progress now. So, for example, in this picture:

She is eating an apple (at the moment).

The verb eat is an action. However, not all verbs describe actions. For example, the verbs believe and want happen inside you, you don't do them (so it's difficult to show in a picture). These verbs are states not actions, and we don't use them with continuous forms. For example,

I am wanting some coffee. (wrong!)

I want some coffee. (correct!)

State verbs can talk about likes/dislikes.

Examples: adore, love, like, don't mind, dislike, hate, loathe, approve, disapprove, prefer

  • I like rabbits.
  • I loathe coffee.

State verbs can describe possession.

Examples: have, own, possess, belong, owe

  • I own 3 houses.
  • That car belongs to me.

State verbs can be used for senses.

Examples: see, hear, smell, feel, sound, taste, seem, appear

  • He seems tired.
  • I heard a noise.

State verbs can be used for mental processes (thinking).

Examples: know, understand, believe, agree, disagree, suppose, suspect, doubt

  • I don't know your sister.
  • I agree with you.

State verbs can be used to describe things.

Examples: be, weigh, contain, consist, cost

  • My car cost a lot.
  • This bag doesn't weigh much.

State verbs can be used to express wants.

Examples: want, need, fancy, desire, wish

  • I need a new job.
  • I fancy a drink!

Note 1: some verbs have more than one meaning, which can be an action or a state.

she is smelling a flowerShe is smelling a flower.
(action in progress, not "she smells ...")

The flower smells lovely.
(state, not "it is smelling")

There are lots of verbs like this. Here are some more examples:

I think you are crazy!
(a state: think = in my opinion)

I'm thinking about my next holiday.
(an action: think = imagining in your mind)

I have three cars.
(a state: have = possess)

I'm having dinner.
(an action: have dinner = eat dinner)

Note 2: You can't usually make the present continuous with a state verb, but you can use state verbs in their -ing form when they are nouns. For example:

I am having a brother.

(not correct: have is a state verb here, not an action)

Having a brother is great! I love having a brother!

(Having a brother works as a noun)

When you are ready, test yourself on the difference between state and action verbs.