'Splainin'


There are two kinds of verb.

I don't mean transitive and intransitive, or active and passive. I mean there are verbs which tell you about an action but not the result, and those which tell you about the result but not the action itself.

Here's some of the first kind:
  • The monkey hit the window.
  • Five mothers sat on a sofa.
  • A minister spoke to us.


Now, what was the state of the window after the monkey hit it? Did the sofa sag under the weight of five mothers? What effect did the minister's speech have on us? Indeed, did we even hear what he said?

We don't know. That information isn't in the sentences. The verbs 'hit', 'sat' and 'spoke' tell us about a process or event, but not the result or consequences.

But here's some examples of the second kind:
  • The monkey smashed the window.
  • Five mothers strained a sofa.
  • A minister fascinated us.


There's no problem here finding the results - a smashed window, a creaking sofa and an enthralled audience. But how did these results come about? What actions led to these consequences?

Was the window smashed by a hammer, a fist, or the monkey falling through it? Did the mothers stand on the sofa, jump up and down on it, or lie on it? How did the minister fascinate us - with a sermon, a striptease, or a demonstration of advanced yoga?

So far as I know, every language has these two kinds of verb, and the only example I can think of, of a verb which might be in both categories is...'is'.

I've also not met a single teacher of English who knew the distinction - though that may not be surprising, as most of them know less about grammar than I know about quantum electrodynamics.

But you may ask: So what? How is this useful outside the EFL classroom?

Well, I think bearing the distinction in mind helps you focus on something important when you're explaining or teaching anything - including to yourself. Namely, on what kind of explanation or instruction you're giving.

Are you a film director explaining to your camera operator how you want a shot framed, or are you an auteur talking about the filmic effect you want, so your technically trained operator can use their experience to work out how to get it?

Are you a music producer working on mid/side EQ, or are you a music lover who hears something missing in the mix and is looking for a way to make it right?

Are you a cook following a recipe or a foodie fine-tuning a meal?

Both are perfectly valid ways of working, but I think a lot of confusion results from not being clear in your own mind what kind of question you're asking and which kind of answer you're looking for.

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