Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The verbs of the senses

A typical mistake my students make:
*You look well.
*I feel well.
The use of "well" in these sentences is incorrect because look and feel, as verbs of the senses, should be followed by adjectives, not by adverbs. Instead, the sentences should be: You look good / I feel fine. Let's see how these verbs work.

We have five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. (Some people talk about a sixth sense, which is in fact extrasensory perception). But today we are going to deal with the verbs of the senses. Here are the most important:
sight see, look
hearing hear, listen, sound
taste taste
touch feel
smell smell

Are these verbs followed by adjectives or by adverbs?
Some of these verbs can be used either as action verbs or stative verbs. In the former case, they are followed by adverbs, but in the latter case, they are followed by adjectives, because we are describing the subject rather than the action of the verb. Compare these sentences:
- She looked at him angrily.
- She looked angry.
In the first sentence, look is an action verb, so, it is complemented by an adverb: "angrily" describes the way that she looked at him. However, in the second sentence look is a stative (or state) verb meaning "seem" or "appear", and the adjective "angry" does not refer to the verb but to the subject. It is similar to saying that "she is angry". As you can see, the second sentence does not describe an action but a state. Going back to the sentences at the beginning, do the verbs show action or state? That's right! There's no action implied, so, they must be followed by adjectives.
In this page you can see many examples of state vs. action verbs.
She looks angry
Can they be put in continuous (progressive) tenses?
Sense verbs can involve involuntary perception like hear or see, or voluntary perception, like look or listen.
Involuntary perception verbs cannot be put in continuous tenses: *I'm seeing the ocean from my window. Instead, we use can or could with them: I can see the ocean from my window.
On the other hand, voluntary perception verbs can be used in continuous tenses: What are you listening to?
However, see and hear can also be action verbs and can have different meanings to that of perception, in which case they can be put in continuous tenses: see can mean "meet someone": I'm seeing Mary for lunch. Hear can also mean "to listen to and judge a case in court": The judge will be hearing the evidence today.
Feel, taste and smell do not have different forms for voluntary or involuntary perception, so, they can only be put in continuous tenses when they are voluntary:
- What are you smelling?
- The cook is tasting the soup.
- I'm feeling the material to see if it is soft enough.
Whereas for involuntary actions, they can never be used in continuous tenses:
- This smells awful.
- My mum's food tastes delicious.
- This blanket feels so soft!
The cook is tasting the soup

The verbs of the senses can be used with like, as if and as though.
She looks like her mum. (noun)
She looks as if / as though she is tired. (clause)
To see the difference and more examples have a look at this entry.
In the following video you can hear the great James Brown giving us some examples of feel followed by adjectives (I feel good / I feel nice) and also by like + noun  (I feel like sugar and spice)

See and hear can be followed by verbs in gerund or infinitive with a slight change in meaning, as we saw in this blogpost.

Finally, let's check what we have learnt by doing this exercise.


  1. Please!! Add post on preposition and conjunction ,its uses and tips on how to spot error questions base on it.

  2. Hi Momo! I have pubished a few posts on prepositions and conjunctions. You can search for them in the "search this blog" section right under the cartoon of the week. I hope you can find what you are looking for. Otherwise, tell me. I'll be glad to be of use! Cheers!

  3. I want to know if the verbs nod and leave are used correctly, or should they be nodding and leaving?
    Ben turned his head and saw John, who, seeing Ben looking at him, nodded and left the room.
    My thought is that the sentence could be as easily:
    Ben turned his head and saw that John, who, seeing Ben looking at him, nodded and left the room.

  4. But can we say iam looking at window

    1. Sure, you can say "I'm looking at the window". You can also say "I'm looking out of the window", and "I'm looking through the window". Can you see the difference?

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