What’s the difference between action and state verbs?

While verbs usually describe actions, some verbs can be used to describe states, such as emotions, opinions or beliefs. Such verbs cannot be used in continuous forms (be + -ing). Let’s have a look how state and action verbs are used.

Action Verbs

As you can tell from their name, action verbs are used to describe actions – things that happen. Action verbs can be used in the present simple or the present continuous (as well as other tenses, but let’s just stick to these two for now). Have a look at the sentences below:

Present SimplePresent Continuous
It rains here almost every day.It's raining.

Both sentences contain the verb rain, which describes an action. In the present simple, the action happens usually – almost every day. When we use the present continuous, the action is happening now, at the moment of speaking.

Here are some more action verbs to give you a better idea of how they work:

Present SimplePresent Continuous
We eat pizza on Fridays.We're eating pizza.
I speak English, Italian and German.I can't understand him. He's not speaking clearly.
actions vs. states

State Verbs

We use state verbs to describe states like mental states (e.g. think, believe, know) or the senses (e.g. smell, taste). These verbs aren’t usually used in the present continuous.

Don't say:Say:
What are you meaning? I’m not understanding you.What do you mean? I don't understand you.
I’m not believing it!I don't believe it!
I’m needing a new coat.I need a new coat.
Are you liking the movie?Are you enjoying the movie or Do you like the movie?

Some verbs can be used in the continuous form when they have a certain meaning:

     I’m seeing the dentist at nine o’clock   present continuous = talking about a plan

     I see what you mean  present simple = I understand (not I‘m seeing what you mean)

The verb feel is another example – it can be used to mean both to have an opinion (state verb) or to touch (action verb).

Common state verbs

Mental and emotional states
doubtbelievefeel (have an opinion)
see (understand)supposethink (have an opinion)
appearlook (seem)seem
Other state verbs