Saturday, March 05, 2011

"Loving This Book": Stative and Progressive

This semester our Hebrew seminar is considering the semantics of the Hebrew verb, and, as a foil to other treatments of verbal semantics, we are reading Waltke & O'Connor's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax with a view to assessing how they dealt with semantic notions.

The last time we met, our agenda was to discuss IBHS ch. 22 (on the Qal) in the light of current thinking about situation aspect, especially stativity. During the discussion, we got held up for a moment by an English example that they use:
[S]tative verbs in English do not occur in progressive forms. ... [For example], one cannot freely say 'I am loving this book.' Since 'love' describes a stative situation (in this case, a psychological state), one freely says 'I love this book.' (IBHS 22.2.1e).

The students unanimously felt that the example was poorly chosen, since in fact one can say "I am loving this book," or the like, as in the following example: "You know that book you gave me for Christmas? Well, I'm really loving it!" Or, "Dr. Cook, I'm really loving this class!" One of them suggested that the language was changing to allow statives to violate the aspectual rule. I suggested this was probably not the case, but was unable, on the fly, to satisfactorily account for the progressive use of "love" except by vaguely saying that it was being used in a different sense in these cases. We had to move on, and there we left it.

I kept thinking about the case, however, and have come to some further conclusions. First of all, I do think the example in IBHS was poorly chosen. A better example of stative+progressive illformedness might be something like *I am knowing the multiplication table or *I am having a new computer or *I am now owning my own home. These usages are indeed incompatible with progressivity, since these statives are not events and denote no action that can "progress" in terms of having some kind of internal temporal structure (like "I am walking the dog").

Second, the situation that IBHS likely envisaged in their sample sentence I am loving this book must have been like the sentences in the previous paragraph, indicating a non-event. For example, if someone pointed to a book on their shelves and said, "See that book with the red cover? Well, I am loving this book," that would be an example of the same kind of illformedness as "*I am owning this book."

Whence, then, the "event" reading of "loving" in I am loving this book? Under that reading, "this book" cannot mean "this object"; it has be taken as "the current process of reading this book." It can't even mean "this book that I finished last week." "Love" can only receive a non-stative reading, and be used in the progressive, when it has for its object (either explicitly or implicitly) another currently ongoing process that is itself progressive. Yet another example: consider the sentence "I am loving this week's episode of Glee." It can only be used of watching this week's episode of Glee (let's say you are on the phone with your friend), and not of the script or performances or plot. Not every stative can participate in this alternation, however.

The fact that Waltke & O'Connor say that the sample sentence cannot be "freely" uttered is unclear. It could mean that they were aware of counter-usages like the one discussed here (in which case they should have chosen a better example).

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The original description of stativity as incompatible with the progressive can be found in Zeno Vendler's classic article, "Verbs and Times," The Philosophical Review, Vol. 66, No. 2. (Apr., 1957), pp. 143-160. By the way, this is not cited in IBHS.


Left-footer said...

Certainly one can properly say, "I am loving every minute of this holiday/book/film."

Macdonald's alogan on UK and Polish advertisements reads, "I'm loving it!"

mike said...

Vendler's original statement about progressives and stativity has been long discarded as in accurate for English (though it is still true for a number of other languages).

The book is lying on the table.
The picture is handing on the wall.

See, for example, Carlota Smith;s The Parameter of Aspect from 1997 (second edition).

If anything, Waltke & O'Connor on this point reflect a less than contemporary discussion. I'm pretty sure the recognition that English does allow certain classes of stative predicates goes back to Dowty's Word meaning and Montague grammar (1979), though I don't have it on hand to check for sure.

EMC said...

Mike: I assume in your last paragraph you mean "stative progressives" and not "stative predicates."

Yes, since 1957 a lot has been published this topic, although the "incompatibility with the progressive" test is still often used, although never without qualification. Even before Dowty, Leech (Meaning and the English Verb, 1971) noted the existence of progressives with putatively stative verbs.

mike said...

Yes, I meant:

"English does [the progressive] allow certain classes of stative predicates"

The "incompatibility test" is *still* a good test. It's just not relevant for English. It is relevant for numerous other languages.

EMC said...

You can't just say "it's not relevant for English" in that flat way. It is relevant, and I don't regard this as even controversial. But in the final analysis, I'm not interested in English, but in Hebrew (and Aramaic).

Melissa said...

Ed, I'm not sure why in your example, "I am loving this book", "'this book' cannot mean 'this object'; it has be taken as 'the current process of reading this book'"? What if you see it on the book-shelf and haven't read it but are increasingly intrigued by it, that is, progressively feeling greater levels of love or affection for the book. Isn't this progressive aspect of love reflected in the notion of falling in or out of love?

mike said...

You can't just say "it's not relevant for English" in that flat way. It is relevant, and I don't regard this as even controversial.

Whatever, change "not" to "less" and you've got it. And to correct myself (for a third time). I should have said: "English does allow [the progressive for] certain classes of stative predicates"

Anyway, how does the test fair for Hebrew?

Buce said...

Seems to me that kind of progressive is common in Yiddish/English comedy. "The party I am throwing downstairs last night is mein husband Pierre." My guess that most comic foreign language forms represent modes of speech that would be perfectly acceptable in the home language. Is this progressive form an artifact of real Yiddish? Russian/Polish/German?

EMC said...

@Mike: Vendler's test for English actually is diagnostic for individual-level vs. stage-level predicates, not really for stativity as such. However, individual-level predicates amount in most (all?) cases to statives, so the test is relevant if not diagnostic for aspect phenomena. By "relevant" I mean heuristically interesting, not necessarily diagnostic. For Hebrew? That's what we're currently studying in the seminar. We've had to isolate constructions in which the active participle has to be read progressively -- not as easy as it sounds. I'll let you know what we find. I very much enjoy EN EPHESO, by the way.

@Buce: I don't know, but it's worth looking into.

@Melissa: Maybe; I still don't think it would be expected to use the progressive with "love" in such a case.