Episode 206: January 29, 2010
by Bonnie Trenga
Today, Bonnie Trenga will help us figure out whether a fast-food chain is on the cutting edge of grammar, or it’s just being creative with verb tenses. It’s time to dissect the McDonald’s advertising slogan “I’m loving it.”
An ESL teacher named Devaki wrote to say she uses the "I'm loving it" slogan in her classroom “as an example of incorrect grammar.”
The issue at hand is whether verbs like “to love” can be conjugated in a progressive tense, which you use to indicate that something is happening at the moment and is continuing around the time to which you refer. In fact, progressive tense is also sometimes called continuous tense. The most common progressive tenses are
Present progressive: “I am running some errands” (It's present progressive because it's happening right now.)
Past progressive: “They were jumping for joy” (It's past progressive because it happened in the past.)
Future progressive: “I will be writing my essay all day tomorrow.” (It's future progressive because it will happen in the future)
Note how all of these activities are progressive because they continued; they happened for more than an instant.
Dynamic Verbs versus Stative Verbs
It turns out that when it comes to progressive tenses, English is divided into two groups of verbs: dynamic and stative.
Dynamic verbs relate an action or a process. Common dynamic verbs are “to walk,” “to yell,” and “to read.” These verbs can be conjugated in progressive tenses, so it’s fine to say, “I will be walking all day” and “He was yelling at me.”
Advertisements, song lyrics, and fashion headlines aren't the places to turn for examples of good grammar.
Stative verbs, on the other hand, describe a state of being and are not supposed to be conjugated in progressive tenses.
The About.com ESL site helpfully breaks stative verbs into four groups (1):
Verbs that show thought or opinion, such as “know” and “recognize” (I know her motives.)
Verbs that show possession, such as “own” and “belong” (The dog belongs to me.)
Verbs that show emotion, such as “love” and “need” (I love Squiggly)
Verbs that show senses, such as “feel” and “see” (I see what you mean).
That last group is especially tricky because many of them can be stative or dynamic verbs depending on how you use them.
According to this division of verbs, you’re not allowed to say sentences such as “They are owning three cars” and “I am seeing the portrait.” Any native speaker will innately sense that those two sentences sound odd.
Verbs That Are Both Dynamic and Stative
As I noted earlier, complicating the issue is the fact that some verbs can be both dynamic and stative (2). Take, for example, the verb “to be.” You can use "to be" in a progressive tense to mean “to behave,” as in “You are being naughty.” In this case, “to be” is being used as a dynamic verb. On the other hand, if you say, “She is a blonde,” “to be” is being used as a stative verb. You couldn’t say, “She is being a blonde.”
Here's another example with the verb "think." You can say, “I think you’re cute,” which is stative, and “I’m thinking about going on vacation,” which is dynamic.
Idiomatic Uses of Stative Verbs
According to the rule, “I’m loving it” is not grammatically correct because it uses a stative verb—in this case, one that conveys emotion, love—in a progressive tense.
But, now we come to some idiomatic uses of stative verbs. You can conjugate certain stative verbs in a progressive tense in the right context. I can easily imagine one lady saying to another, “Hey, Jean. I’m loving that new haircut!” On the other hand, it wouldn’t sound right to say, “I’m loving my mother.” You’d say, “I love my mother.” Another example might be the verb “to hear.” This is considered a stative verb, yet native speakers will be familiar with the statement “I’m hearin’ ya” to mean “I understand your point of view.” However, no native speaker would say, “I’m hearing the concert.”
“I’m loving it” does sound slightly off, and that draws attention. Perhaps that’s why McDonald’s chose it for their slogan, which launched in September 2003 (3). None of the dictionaries I checked sanction "loving" as a form of the verb "love," but the McDonald's slogan isn't the only instance where this sentence has been used in popular culture. Justin Timberlake has a 2003 song called “I’m Loving It” (4), and earlier the Scorpions put out a song called “Still Loving You” (5), which contains the lyric “I’m loving you.” Just recently, glamour.com had this to say about a maternity dress: “I’m loving the hot hue, the sweet, off-the-shoulder neckline …” The article’s headline was “Loving Her Look: Amy Adams Redefines The Maternity Dress” (6).
We all know that advertisements, song lyrics, and fashion headlines aren't the places to turn for examples of good grammar, but we also know that native speakers of English can get creative with traditional grammar, and that sometimes grammatically iffy phrases catch on. Language is constantly changing. Enough people seem to be using stative verbs in progressive tenses that we can probably say it’s becoming more accepted in popular culture to use them that way. That said, it’s still probably best for ESL teachers to continue to advise their students not to say, “I’m loving it” or to use other potentially incorrect stative verbs in progressive tenses. ESL teachers should point out, though, that students will hear native speakers using stative verbs in progressive tenses when the moment seems right.
Grammar Girl iPhone App
If you have an iPhone or iPod touch, you can get even more great Grammar Girl audio content in our iPhone app. For a one-time fee of $1.99 you get exclusive weekly bonus tracks. If you go listen right now, the bonus track has fascinating information about the history of capitalization, such as why we call them uppercase and lowercase letters, and what an 18th-century author had in common with today's text messagers.
Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier & The Grammar Devotional
This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga, author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com, and I'm Mignon Fogarty, the author of The Grammar Devotional.
Web Bonus for Teachers
Which of these sentences use the progressive tense? Can you state whether it's present, past, or future progressive?
A. Squiggly is helping Aardvark.
B. Squiggly helps Aardvark.
[Answer: A. Present progressive]
A. The peeves were annoying Squiggly and Aardvark.
B. The peeves annoyed Squiggly and Aardvark.
[Answer: A. Past progressive]
A. Sir Fragalot will shout sentence fragments from the rooftop.
B. Sir Fragalot will be shouting sentence fragments from the rooftop.
[Answer: B. Future progressive.]
A. The team was winning the race.
B. The team won the race.
[Answer: A. Past progressive]
A. The chess club will be moving the tables.
B. The chess club will move the tables.
[Answer: A. Future progressive.]
A. The students laugh at these sentences.
B. The students are laughing at these sentences.
[Answer: B. Present progressive]
Do these sentences use stative verbs or dynamic verbs?
I recognize you. [Stative]
I ran home. [Dynamic]
I own that car. [Stative]
I feel happy. [Stative]
I sang the song. [Dynamic]
I need chocolate. [Stative]
I helped Squiggly. [Dynamic]
I hovered over the puddle. [Dynamic]
1. Beare, Kenneth. About.com Guide. Differences between Action and Stative Verbs. http://esl.about.com/od/grammarstructures/a/g_stative.htm.
2. Perfect English Grammar. Stative Verbs: How to Use Stative (State) Verbs. http://www.perfect-english-grammar.com/stative-verbs.html.
3. Wikipedia. McDonald’s Advertising. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_lovin%27_it.
4. Wikipedia. McDonald’s Advertising. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I%27m_Lovin%27_It.
5. Lyrics Time. The Scorpions Lyrics. http://www.lyricstime.com/the-scorpions-lyrics.html.
6. Slaves to Fashion Daily Style Blog. http://www.glamour.com/fashion/blogs/slaves-to-fashion/2010/01/loving-her-look-amy-adams-rede.html.