Saul Steinberg on activity and stativity

On a postcard I got recently, a reproduction of this drawing by Saul Steinberg (used as a New Yorker cover in 1971):

The prototypical activity verb do (with agentive subjects) and two stative verbs (with non-agentive subjects), relational have and predicating be, with their (usual) semantics represented in visual images.

I’ll say a bit more about activity and stativity. But first, some words about Saul Steinberg.

From the Wikipedia entry:

Saul Steinberg (June 15, 1914 – May 12, 1999) was a Romanian-born American cartoonist and illustrator, best known for his work for The New Yorker.

… The New Yorker cover (March 29, 1976) “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” has come to represent Manhattan’s telescoped interpretation of the country beyond the Hudson River. The cartoon showed the supposedly limited mental geography of Manhattanites.

Steinberg tended to see himself as a writer who drew, and most of his work (always wry, sometimes jokey and sometimes more serious) should be viewed as social criticism; he should be seen as an artist, period, not as a mere illustrator and cartoonist.

Language was a recurrent theme in his work, as in “I Do, I Have, I Am” above and in this drawing (on, roughly, interrogativity):

The covers of some books collecting his drawings, which will give you some feel for his style and his preoccupations: The Passport (1954):

The Discovery of America (1992):

and Illuminations (2006):

Now, about activity and stativity in verbs — semantic distinctions with reflexes in syntactic behavior. There’s a huge literature on these topics just in English alone. As a first approximation, it’s usually said (as I did above) that some lexical items are activity verbs and some are stative verbs: imitate is an activity verb, denoting an activity, resemble a stative verb, denoting a state, and their different semantics is reflected in a number of syntactic differences, for instance ability to occur in the progressive and ability to occur in do-clefts:

Kim is imitating Sandy. / *Kim is resembling Sandy.

What Kim did was imitate Sandy. / *What Kim did was resemble Sandy.

The asterisks of ungrammaticality here are well-known to be problematic. If Kim is Plastic Person, capable of shifting form, then the resemble examples get much better; and Kim is resembling Sandy more and more these days is fine.

Even have and be are not reliably classed as stative by such tests. There are many different uses of have (or, possibly, many different verbs have), and some of them are fine in, for example, the progressive:

We’re having a baby in July.

I’m having a party Saturday night.

I’m having a premonition about the next election.

Meanwhile, be itself can denote intentional acts, in which case the progressive and the do-cleft are possible:

Kim is being mean to Sandy. / What Kim did was be mean to Sandy.

So it’s not accurate to say, flat out, that have and be are stative verbs. The connections between lexical items, semantics, and syntax are more complicated than that.

6 Responses to “Saul Steinberg on activity and stativity”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    “The connections between lexical items, semantics, and syntax are more complicated than that.”

    Isn’t always that way? That’s what makes it so much fun.

  2. Neal GoldfarbNeal Goldfarb Says:

    Just as “have” and “be” aren’t necessarily stative, “do” isn’t necessarily agentive.

    A: “Do you still live in New York?” B: “Yes, I do.”

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Ah, this do is customarily treated as a separate lexical item, “supportive do“, quite distinct from activity do (in the modern language), except for sharing inflectional morphology with it. In fact, they can co-occur: “What did you do?”

  3. Comic machines « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] and graphic novelist, Maurice Sendak is an illustrator and writer (of children’s books), Saul Steinberg is classified as “cartoonist and illustrator”, and Reginald Marsh is both artist (by […]

  4. Steadman’s Boids « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Steadman is yet another artist most often labeled as a cartoonist, but who’s also a caricaturist, illustrator, and writer — in his case, with an audience of both children and (for his editorial cartoons and in his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson) adults. In the company of Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs, Ronald Searle, and Saul Steinberg. […]

  5. Barbara Kruger « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Steadman is yet another artist most often labeled as a cartoonist, but who’s also a caricaturist, illustrator, and writer — in his case, with an audience of both children and (for his editorial cartoons and in his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson) adults. In the company of Maurice Sendak, Raymond Briggs, Ronald Searle, and Saul Steinberg. […]

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