It seems to me that most English verbs always convey some action. That is, no words (to my knowledge) convey that absence of an action. Let me explain. Let's assume that I wanted to say that a certain person is not running. Notice, I don't want to say that he's "standing around" or "sitting" or "lying down", because those verbs explicitly suggest other actions. In other words, I don't want to say that this person is doing a thing different from running. Only that he's not running. What's he doing? Oh, I don't know, he could be doing absolutely anything. All I know is that he's not running.

My question: Does English have such words? Or do any other languages you know? I'd guess not, because words like this would be too limited in meaning to justify their existence in the lexicon when simply appending "not" would do. Still, I'd like to know.

  • What are you trying to describe with such a word? Like when would you use it? To emphasize someone is slacking, or to try and convey a deeper philosophy about it?
    – sova
    Commented Feb 3, 2011 at 3:48
  • Could you provide some examples from other languages? Commented Feb 3, 2011 at 12:17
  • It's curious that being asleep is an action ("she is sleeping") but being awake is not ("she is waking" only means she is getting up). Commented Mar 1, 2011 at 5:54

3 Answers 3


As you have shown yourself, when we want to say that we are doing something other than a specific action, we simply use negation:

In other words, I don't want to say that this person is doing a thing different from running. Only that he's not running.

You see you are using negation to describe that which you want to describe without negation? This is a very efficient and natural method; that is why there aren't a great many words that specifically negate other words without using a common marker of negation: using not or non- or in- or something like that is simply an excellent tool.

I think we mainly use "opposite" words without negation in cases where two words together fill up the whole space of probable situations, so that we have only 1 or 0. Consider man-woman in the context of sexes, or running-standing in the context of a game of baseball: in these cases, there are usually two choices each, so that we call one the opposite of the other.

But if we consider man, woman, child in the legal system of the Romans, or standing-sitting-walking-running in the context of a street view, these pairs cannot be considered opposites. Whether one thing is the opposite of another it is usually impossible to say without a tertium comparationis, a third concept that serves as a common frame of reference. Note that this is often not explicit; but it is still there in the background when you think about it.

When we use negation, we are often dealing with a whole that can be divided in more than two parts; we just want to say that something is not in part A, but in one of the other parts. Only when the whole consists of two parts only, and those parts are of a similar "size" in one sense or another, does a negation make an opposite.


Well, there's saying that someone is idling.

To goldbrick, to shirk and to slack denote something that somebody is not doing (working) while not implying anything they actually are doing. (Enh, perhaps not. There may be more or less of an implication that they are actively engaged in avoiding work.)


Would you regard just being as an action? Other possibilities might include verbs such as failing, stopping, ignoring, staying, or remaining, especially if they are done unconsciously.

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