Many grammar books claim that ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘taste’, ‘smell’, ‘feel’ are verbs that aren’t used in continuous forms, and yet, we do hear and see it quite often used by native speakers. For instance, read the title of this article:

Are You Hearing Enough Complaints?

The average complainer tells nine or more others about his unhappy experience. So successfully resolving a complaint is not only likely to generate increased business from the complainer, but also to restore nine or more potentially lost opportunities with other customers or prospects. The point is, if you're not hearing any complaints this might be a reason to worry, rather than to congratulate yourself.

I myself would say "I'm hearing more and more people pronounce this word this way" just as much as I would say "I hear more and more people..."

Your thoughts, native speakers? Does using the continuous form of this verb feel odd to you?

  • 2
    Not in that sentence; that sentence is fine. The grammar books are trying to explain that you say "I hear the clock striking four" rather than "I'm hearing the clock striking four". This is different from most verbs, where the simple present tense is only used for habitual actions, and the continuous is used for things that would be simple present in other languages. Feb 8, 2014 at 11:52
  • 4
    Pray tell what grammar books those might be. A claim that sensing verbs are not used in the continuous at all is ludicrous. Some of those verbs (particularly taste and smell) are less likely to be used in the continuous forms than most other verbs, but there's no rule in English grammar that prohibits such use. Feb 8, 2014 at 11:54
  • 3
    I can't believe I'm hearing this.
    – Robusto
    Feb 8, 2014 at 12:09
  • 2
    At least you're seeing it all right!
    – None
    Feb 8, 2014 at 12:30
  • 2
    For extra confusion, some dialects do or did (historically) allow the constructions it is prohibiting. Read enough Irish fiction from before the middle of the last century and you do be slipping into unorthodox continuous along with some strange do-support, so you do. If your normal speech favours "one" as a pronoun, the result can be an awful mess.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 8, 2014 at 13:07

4 Answers 4

  1. Are you hearing that noise?
  2. That cake is tasting delicious.
  3. You are smelling like a rose.
  4. He is seeing the blue sky.

All of the above sentences would be considered as being either ungrammatical or nonstandard English by most prescriptive grammar books. And I would avoid saying these type of phrases myself. Furthermore, it is true that verbs of senses are not normally used in the present progressive but I've never read a grammar book which strictly prohibited their use. Sentences 1 to 4 will sound more natural and "native-like" if the present simple tense is employed.

  1. Can you hear that noise?
  2. That cake tastes delicious.
  3. You smell like a rose.
  4. He can see the blue sky.

The verb hear often means we perceive or detect a sound with our ears. It is not a dynamic action but an involuntary one, hence it is classed as being a stative verb. On the other hand, the verb listen expresses intention and is a dynamic verb. Consider:

A: What are you listening to?
B: This great album by [group], I'm always listening to their music.

You couldn't replace listen with hear in that particular context.

To express the concept that a noise is audible with your ears, we often use the modal verb, can in the present tense.

(Three friends on Skype)
A: Can you hear me, now?
B: Yes, I can hear you loud and clear.
C: No, sorry. I can't. It's very difficult to make out what you're saying. The audio's not very good I'm afraid.

Wikipedia confirms and adds

Verbs of mental state, sense perception and similar (know, believe, want, think, see, hear, need, etc.) are generally used without progressive aspect, although some of them can be used in the progressive to imply an ongoing, often temporary situation (I am feeling lonely), or an activity (I am thinking about a problem). (...) In colloquial English it is common to use can see, can hear for the present tense of see, hear, etc.

However, the verb hear also means to receive information by the ear, as Ws2's answer illustrates, and in this case the progressive form can be used e.g.,

  • I'm constantly hearing stories about those awful people who've recently moved in the neighbourhood. They say, the son is an ex-convict.
  • I am constantly hearing about sugar and how it is truly evil (...).
  • This is the first time I'm hearing this.

and in the phrase quoted by the OP

"Are you hearing enough complaints?" = Have you been receiving information recently?

Feel in my opinion, does not fit very well in the category of stative verbs. Feel when it is a sense can be used in the progressive form as much as the present simple tense. 1) I'm feeling lazy today (I feel lazy today) 2) How are you feeling? (How do you feel?) 3) He's not feeling too well. (He doesn't feel too well.) BUT 4) What are you doing? I'm feeling this textile (I feel this textile.).

I can use the continuous tense in the following without any fear of sounding odd: "I'm smelling this milk to see if it's any good", "What are you tasting?"; "The sniffer-dog is smelling all the suitcases for explosives" (as suggested by Ws2); and "I'm seeing Anthony later tonight."

Michael Swan in Practical English Usage gives a list and definition of these stative verbs.

There are many verbs that are not usually used in the progressive tenses and others that are not used in the progressive tenses in certain of their meanings. The most important of these [stative] verbs are:

  1. dislike, hate, like, love, prefer, want, wish
  2. astonish, impress, please, satisfy, surprise
  3. believe, doubt, feel (=have an opinion), guess, imagine, know, mean, realize, recognize, remember, suppose, think (=have an opinion), understand
  4. hear, see, measure (=have length etc), taste (=have a flavour), smell (=give out a smell), sound, weigh (= have weight)
  5. belong to, concern, consist of, contain, depend on, deserve, fit, include, involve, lack, matter, need, owe, own, possess
  6. appear, resemble, seem

So to summarise, it is not true that the verbs, hear, see, taste, etc. are not used in the continuous forms, it depends on context and meaning.

  • GELT by Martin Parrott says that some verbs can describe both events and states: feel, smell, taste (senses/tasting action). The river always smells foul. (here it describes an inherrent characteristic or quality of the river). When these are event verbs we can use them in a wide range of forms: I'm just smelling the meat to find out if it's OK to eat it.
    – Yukatan
    Feb 9, 2014 at 16:16

according to English Grammar by E. Istomina, A. Saakyan "The verbs of sense and mental perception (see, hear, understand) are used to express surprise, doubt, disbelief (especially in questions): What am I hearing here? I can't believe what I am seeing! Am I understanding you correctly?


I see nothing wrong with using the continuous form of any of them.

'I am seeing more examples of late tackles from the United defenders'.

'I am constantly hearing complaints about that referee'.

'I am now tasting wine for a living'.

'The sniffer-dog is currently smelling all the suitcases for explosives'

'How are you feeling? I'm feeling much better, thank-you'.

This is the first time I have ever heard it suggested that the present continuous should not be used for these verbs!

  • 1
    @Louel I have read that, and though it is published by the British Council I find it difficult to believe it has been written by a native speaker. Not only is section 3 quite incorrect, but section 4 as well. There is absolutely no reason why you can't say 'He has been unloading the catch and is "smelling of fish"'. I would be interested to known what Barrie England and Edwin Ashworth think of it.
    – WS2
    Feb 8, 2014 at 17:18
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    I teach English teachers in the Czech Republic, and I can tell you virtually all elementary/ intermediate textbooks in English make this generalization, and the teachers here take it as gospel truth...
    – Louel
    Feb 8, 2014 at 18:46
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    @Louel that may be true of inexperienced teachers, and those who have not had to teach advanced level students. For beginners, these "rules" are useful, and even necessary I'd say. You want to be teaching the basics, the essential aspects of English for communicative purposes. In time, you introduce more complex notions, the exceptions to the rule, the different nuances. Once a student reaches intermediate level, they realize that English "grammar" is far more subtle than it may have been presented to them (well, they ought to).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 8, 2014 at 19:02
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    Because when they learn how to do the progressive tense, they apply it to everything! :) So you get, "I am knowing my wife" and "I am not liking dog" etc.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 8, 2014 at 22:08
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    @WS2, I can assure you MOST textbooks (written by native speakers from the UK) for EFL students make these generalizations, too. I teach English in the Czech Republic. I've seen them all--New English File, Headway, Speak Out, etc...they all make this hasty generalization. But I agree that it's probably necessary to do this at the beginner and intermediate levels so as not to confuse the students too much.
    – Louel
    Feb 9, 2014 at 22:36

Is it really wrong to say “I'm hearing”?

The simple and continuous forms of all verbs have their respective nuances and you should decide what you want the sentence to mean, and then choose the appropriate form.

All simple forms of the verb indicate an action as a whole - from start to finish.

The simple form of the verb can indicate a habitual or regular action that

(i) is/was/will be complete/completed each time it is undertaken.

A: What do you do to keep fit? B: I ride a bike. -> “ride” includes everything from getting on the bike at the start of the journey to getting off the bike at the end.


(ii) a single, complete or completed present, future, or past action:

"He told me that I had to visit the Eiffel Tower, so I go/went/will go to Paris on Wednesday” -> “go/went/will go” includes everything from the decision being made, bags being packed, going to the airport, etc., to the arrival in Paris.

(iii) a habitual, recurring, regular or frequent action (that is completed each time)

On Saturdays, I go to the gym.

He ate toast for breakfast every day of his life.

The continuous form of the verb indicates

(i) an action that is/was/will be

(i) incomplete and

(ii) in progress

(iii) at the time that is being referred to (it has started but it has not yet finished) ->

I will be/am/was/have been/had been riding a bike = I will be/am/was/have been/had been in the process of riding a bike but have not yet finished riding the bike at the time I am referring to.

The continuous form used to be known as “the imperfect”: It was called “imperfect” because the action had not been “perfected” i.e. it had not finished.

OED 5. Grammar. Applied to a tense which denotes action going on but not completed; usually [edit - but not always] to the past tense of incomplete or progressive action.

1871 H. J. Roby Gram. Latin Lang. §549 Three [tenses] denoting incomplete action; the Present, Future, and Imperfect (sometimes called respectively, present imperfect, future imperfect, past imperfect).

  • Can you give a final example with 'hear' and say which way means what given all this?
    – Mitch
    Jul 27, 2021 at 1:21

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