I was recently proofreading an ESL textbook and came across a photo of a woman. She had a surprised look on her face. Underneath were four options that the student was to pick. One of them was: "The woman is looking surprised." The other options were not possible choices.

I can't cite a general rule why this option is incorrect other than I have never seen or heard "look" used in this way. I asked someone else, and they said it sounded weird but didn't violate any rules of grammar. I feel it should be "The woman looks surprised." in the same way that we say "I know something," and not "I am knowing something."

Is the option "The woman is looking surprised." incorrect?

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    "Donold B. Lourie is looking great. He is identifiable from a distance of 50 feet: His ears seem more prominent than ever. He is chatting with one of his classmates, grinning the famous Lourie grin: all-American, but modest." – Noah Nov 19 '16 at 8:28
  • @Noah Very good example, journalists use this form all the time. Hillary Clinton is still looking surprised, not to say shocked! – BoldBen Nov 19 '16 at 8:34
  • Rathony's answer below is hard to improve upon. But the whole stative/active ... punctive/progressive issue needs to be collated. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '16 at 8:55
  • @EdwinAshworth yes so maybe someone like Lawler will weigh in and create an answer that can be pointed to in the future. – michael_timofeev Nov 19 '16 at 8:57
  • Noah's and Ben's examples above are totally idiomatic. There are situations where 'is looking' (sense of 'appear') works fine, and others where it approaches unacceptability. A full treatment of this particular example would probably require a dissertation. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '16 at 8:58

I would say the sentence is not incorrect, but is unidiomatic and not broadly used because you don't need to use the progressive aspect of some verbs like to look, to know, to need, to like (or love), etc. The verbs themselves express ongoing state and using the progressive tense seems to be redundant.

The problem is the trend to use the progressive aspect of those verbs is getting traction recently and you can't stop people from using it. For example, some verbs in this state verb list are more broadly used in the progressive tense than others. In other words, not all the sentences marked as not correct are wrong. Some people seem to use it not only for progressive aspect, but also for emphasis. Those cases should be examined on a case-by-case basis.

In the linked Ngram Viewer, I could find a very small number of results for "was lookiong surprised" and none for "is looking surprised". Almost same result for is looking shocked,looks shocked,was looking shocked,looked shocked.

The verb to look could be used in progressive aspect when it becomes more dynamic as in:

I have been looking for you.

To look for here means to try to find (search for) the location of something or someone. To look in the above sentence is used in a more dynamic way than in "She looks surprised". The key factor seems to be usage of each verb and how close it is to a dynamic verb and a stative verb in which it is extremely difficult to draw a clear line.

Some people use "Looking good!" or "Looking great!" and they don't sound unidiomatic. I don't see any reason why the verb to look can't be used in progressive tense. Some uses will sound more idiomatic than others.

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  • 'Some uses will sound more idiomatic than others.' Perfectly true. Infuriatingly (or fascinatingly?) true. ?'Jean was looking surprised when I entered the room.' / 'As I entered the room, I noticed Jean had a look of surprise on her face.' //'Jean is looking surprised in this photograph.' – Edwin Ashworth Nov 19 '16 at 9:02

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