Verbs of the senses
Choose the correct option to complete the sentences below.
Stative or dynamic uses of sense verbs
Stative uses of feel, hear, see, smell, taste
When we use the verbs feel, hear, see, smell, or taste to talk about the impressions that we receive through our five senses (touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste), they are all non-action verbs and cannot be used in progressive forms.
- You smell nice. (NOT
you are smelling)
- This soup tastes fantastic. What did you put in it? (NOT
Can/can’t (feel, hear, see, smell, taste)
We normally use can or can’t with these verbs (and NOT present continuous) to talk about something that is happening at the moment.
- I can see a beautiful woman next to your sister. (NOT
I am seeing)
- Sorry, can you speak up? I can’t hear you. (NOT
I’m not hearing)
- I can smell petrol. Have you just filled up the tank? (NOT
I am smelling)
- I’ve burned my tongue and now I can’t taste the flavour in the dish. (NOT
I am not tasting)
- I can feel your heartbeat. It is very fast. (NOT
Look and sound
Look and sound are also stative (or non-action) verbs when they mean ‘seem’ or ‘appear’.
- She looks old.
- You sound very happy.
Dynamic uses of feel, hear, look, see, smell, taste
The verbs feel, look, smell, and taste can be used in continuous forms when they are voluntary actions.
- Why are you smelling the milk? Isn’t it good? (=Put your nose near something to see how it smells)
- He’s tasting the food to see if it needs more salt. (=Put something into your mouth to see how it tastes)
- I’m feeling the fabric to see if it’s soft or not. (=Touch something to see how it feels)
- Why are you looking in that direction? (=direct your eyes in order to see)
We can also use feel in progressive tenses to talk about how we feel physically or emotionally.
- ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘I’m not feeling very well.’
- I was feeling very weak after the operation.
The verbs hear and smell can also be used as action verbs with different meanings.
- I’m seeing Jerry for lunch. (=Meet someone)
- We’ve been seeing each other for months. (=Date someone)
- I’ve been hearing really strange things about him recently. (=receive information)
Sense verbs + infinitive or gerund?
After feel, hear, listen, notice, see, watch we can use a gerund to express an incomplete action, an action in progress, or a repeated action:
- I saw them kissing in the park. (=The action was in progress. I didn’t see it finish.)
- They watched the man hitting a police officer. (=The action was in progress; the man hit the police officer repeatedly.)
After feel, hear, listen, notice, see, watch we can use an infinitive to talk about an action we heard or saw from beginning to end; usually a short action, and not a repeated action.
- I saw them kiss in the park. (=I saw the action from start to end. It was probably a short kiss)
- They watched the man hit a police officer. (=They saw the action from start to end; the man hit the police officer once)
Sense verbs + adjective, noun or clause (linking verbs)
Look, smell, taste, sound, feel + adjective
We can use feel, smell, taste, sound, and feel before an adjective to talk about how something feels, tastes, etc.
- When you use that cream, your skin feels really smooth.
- When he talked to us sounded nervous.
Look, smell, taste, sound, feel + like + noun
We can also use feel, smell, taste, sound, and feel + like before a noun.
- You sound like your mother.
- This tastes like chicken.
Note that we say smell/taste of to talk about the smell or flavour are of the real thing and we say smell/taste like when it’s a smell or flavour similar to the real thing. Compare:
- The soup smells of cheese. (=There is cheese in it.)
- The soup smells like cheese. (=The smell is similar to the smell of cheese.)
Look, smell, taste, sound, feel + as if/as though + clause
- You sound as if you had a long party last night.
- You look as though you’ve just seen a ghost.
Note that in informal English we often use feel, smell, taste, sound, and feel + like + clause.
- You sound like you had a long party last night.
- You look like you’ve just seen a ghost.
Seem, appear and look
Seem + adjective, seem like + noun, seem as if/though + clause
- You seem tired.
- He seems clever.
- The final five minutes seemed like five hours.
- It seems as if they aren’t going to help us.
Note that in informal English we also use like before a clause.
- It seems like we’ll never find out the truth.
Seem, appear + to + infinitive
After seem and appear we often use to + infinitive (present events), or a to + have + past participle (past events).
- She appears to be in very good shape.
- It seems to be some kind of insect.
- He seems to have lost his moral compass.
It seems/appears + that + clause
We can also use It seems/appears + that clause.
- It appears that he might be telling the truth after all.
- It seems that they have improved a lot since the end of the season.
Seem vs look
When we use seem and look as non-action verbs, there is some difference in meaning.
- You look tired. (=I get the impression from seeing your face)
- You seem tired. (=I get the impression from the way you behave –your voice, movements, etc.)
Sometimes we can use one verb but not the other and vice versa.
- She looks beautiful. (NOT
seems, because I get the impression from looking at her physique)
- She seems nice. (NOT
looks, because I get the impression by her behaviour)
Sense verbs, followed by adjective or adverb?
When the verbs of senses are used as non-action verbs, they are copular verbs, and copular verbs (like be) are followed by adjectives, and not by adverbs.
- You look tired. (NOT
- She felt bad after saying that. (NOT
- You smell nice. (NOT
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