Verbs that refer to physical feelings (e.g. feel, hurt, ache) can often be used in simple or progressive tenses without much difference in meaning.

  • How do you feel? or How are you feeling?
  • My head aches. or My head is aching.

Source: "Practical English Usage" by M. Swan, OUP, Third Edition page 455.

Please help me clarify this point. I am confused.
As we know that stative verbs do not use progressive tenses because they always describe state but why "ache", "feel" etc being stative verbs, they are used in progressive tense? Do these verbs, being stative, expresses the "state" through progressive tenses? Am I correct?

  • This can even extend to idiomatic expressions - How do you do? How are you doing? – Lawrence Jun 20 '17 at 8:19
  • How are these verbs "being stative" if they are clearly not being stative in your very own examples? – RegDwigнt Jul 20 '17 at 10:08
  • Why? Because they are. There is no real ‘why’ to it. Stative verbs are rarely used in progressive constructions because that’s how English grammar works. Verbs of bodily sensation are frequently used in both progressive and non-progressive constructions with only a slight difference in meaning because that’s just how English works. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 '17 at 14:52
  • Your statement "As we know that stative verbs do not use progressive tenses because they always describe state" is incorrect. For example, He's being so patient with me. – AmE speaker Aug 20 '17 at 2:26

These body sensation verbs are not stative verbs.

Your head/feet/whatever are doing something to you (aching, itching, throbbing, burning).

My foot is not in the state of having 'achingness' - my foot is reporting to me that it is actively aching.


... can often be used in simple or progressive tenses without much difference in meaning.

How do you feel? or How are you feeling?

There is a difference in meaning. If you go for literal accuracy, "How do you feel?" should be answered with "By using my nerves." (or emotions, if "feel" is meant figuratively).

But this pedantically literal meaning is not interpreted in a normal conversation, because it's so uncommon to actually mean that.

By comparison, "how are you feeling?" is implicitly meant to say:

How are you feeling currently?

Which focuses on current feelings, as opposed to asking about the ability to feel things in general.

Contextual understanding can override grammatical correctness.

I wanted to answer your question more directly. You are focusing on stative verbs and tenses. You are trying to derive meaning based on the application of grammatical rules.
However, my argument is that the contextual meaning overrides what would grammatically be understood. Therefore, the rules that you are basing your question on do not apply in this case, as the rules are ignored in favor of an "obviously understandable" context.

Just like how to people can settle things out of court (therefore not needing the direct application of legal rules), we can understand things from context (therefore not needing the direct application of grammatical rules).
The rules are mostly there to disambiguate in cases where the meaning is not already clear.

There are other occurrences of this:

A man asks "Is there no one who wants to go on a date with me?"
All women shout "NO!"

Literally, the women are saying that there is someone who wants to go out on a date with him. "No" negates the man's statement, so you can rephrase the response as "there is not no one", which means "there is someone" when you simplify the phrasing.

However, that is not what is understood contextually. It is understood that the women are confirming his idea, that there is indeed no one who wants to go on a date with him.

"Is there no one who wants to go on a date with me?"
"Is there someone who wants to go on a date with me?"

While these sentences seem to be opposites of eachother; they are considered equivalent, because of the context in which they are used.

There is a nuanced difference. When you ask "Is there no one...?", you are implicitly stating that you already think that no one exists, and are merely asking for confirmation of your idea.
Compared to "Is there someone...?", where you are looking for an answer to the question, as opposed to looking for confirmation of your existing answer to the question.

Another example:

I saw nothing.
I did not see anything.

Technically speaking, the first sentence is impossible. You can't see something that is not there. You can understand that there is an unexpected absence.

But from context, it is assumed to be equivalent to the second sentence.

I think phrasings like these have naturally evolved as language evolves itself, from ambiguous statements:

I didn't see anything

translate it back to a more archaic form:

I [saw not] [a thing].

Which can be misinterpreted as

I [saw] [not a thing]

Which, when you translate it back to modern English, becomes

I saw [nothing].

If the speaker does not understand (or chooses to ignore) the pedantic difference between the two sentences; then he uses them interchangeably. And from repeated interchangeable usage, it can turn into an accepted equivalent phrasing, as everyone starts using it interchangeably, regardless of it (pedantically) not being correct.

There are also idiomatic expressions that could be considered grammatically incorrect; but they are considered correct as they are an idiom. Arguably, calling something an idiom inherently states that they are immune to grammatical incorrectness, as they are considered established concepts (and therefore inherently correct).

  • One swallow does not a summer make
  • Time immemorial
  • How goes it?
  • ...

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