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Is forget a stative verb?

Can "forget" be a stative verb?

The short answer is “forget” cannot be a state because at some time in the past something had to have been forgotten. No state can begin with an act. That’s all that really need be said.

The long answer is:

I entered this discussion because I felt those who found it peculiar that “forget” is often listed as a stative verb, were not getting an adequate explanation. One such person even said, “Forget is obviously an act.” Well, “forget” is obviously an act, but using “forget,” at least in the first person singular, has gained favor with some, including prominent writers throughout history. Sites such as this are quick to point this out along with giving examples of dictionaries that appear to give stative definitions such as “unable to recall.” These explanations given in defense of “forget” having a stative aspect are remise in that they give no reasons as to why many find such usage strange or peculiar, leaving people often unsatisfied, saying things like: OK, I’ll just accept it, but … , I’ll just have to go with it’s fuzzy, or I still think it sound better as “I’ve forgotten …”.

I wanted to address this dissatisfaction and explain that there is a very good reason for not feeling comfortable with using “forget” as a stative verb. Regardless of who may have used it as such, “forget” is simply not grammatically a stative verb, nor can it be. Most people don’t even know the difference between a stative verb and a dynamic verb anyway. People who use “forget” in the present tense in a statement like “I forget your name,” may not consciously be trying to present themselves as being in any particular state; it is just that sometimes using “forget” in the present tense seems to convey a meaning that is not represented by use of the past tense. Saying “I forgot you name,” may sound too permanent, while saying, “I forget your name” may sound more like a temporary laps of memory. In a statement like “It’s this or that, I forget which,” “forget” may be used to sound dismissive (minimize the act of having forgotten something), or be used as an attempt to ignore the time gap between the act of forgetting and the time of utterance. The verb “forget” cannot actually be objectively stative for two very good sound reasons, which I will discuss.

States do not come in opposite pairs that we can just bounce back and forth between. If one can’t remember, one does not enter some opposite state of “forget.” Each state is its own special set of circumstances, and we are either in that state or we are not. This is true not only of stative verbs, but adjectives. If one says “I’m not hot,” that is not the same as saying “I am cold,” using hot’s most logical antonym. A person is either hot or not hot, or cold or not cold. It is difficult if not impossible to find an opposite “antonym” state that means the same as the negated state since not being in one particular state can leave room for many other states one may then be in. In other words, it is highly unlikely that leaving one state determines any specific state one went to. Since opposite or antonym states are not likely to connote the same meaning as the negated state, I’ll refer to the states we are attempting to attain as “counter states,” meaning states equivalent to the negated states.

What are the counter states to understand, own, believe, hate, or became supposed to be except don’t understand, don’t own, don’t believe, don’t hate, and didn’t become? There is no counter state to remember except don’t remember, or unable to recall because there are no specific counter state we just slid into when we leave a state. I can’t remember your name, I am unable to recall your name, I don’t remember your name; these are all we can say – one just cannot get back into the state of remember. With the wide assortment of adjectival descriptive states, there might be some near exceptions; such as, if one is not well, one is assumed to be sick, and if one is not alive, one is assumed to be dead. Not even these, however, are perfect counter states. A person who is injured could be considered not well, though not sick. And, a person who is not alive may never have been born, so is not dead, such as in “No man alive could lift that weight.” With stative verbs, the task of assigning a counter state is even more improbable and most likely impossible.

The second reason why “forget” cannot be stative is that no state can include any specific act that was required to enter that state. An act cannot precipitate a state because a verb cannot be both an act and a state at the same time. “Remember” can be separated from any associated causal act of having “remembered” something because to be in the state of “remember,” one did not expressly need to have “remembered” something first. In fact, most items are simply remembered (retained) directly from experience, and no special effort need be taken to recount the event or information learned. “Forget” cannot be separated from its cause because “forget” means something was forgotten. It ALWAYS means something was forgotten.

Thus, the act of forget and this so called state of forget are inseparable. It is as simple as that, and this difference makes all the difference in the world. One can say: “I remember you name,” “I have remembered your name ever since I met you,” “I don’t remember your name,” all because the act of “remembering” something need not be inferred. One can also say: “I can’t remember your name,” referring to not being able to perform the act of remembering.

On the other hand, one cannot say: “I forget your name,” “I have forgotten your name ever since I met you,” or “I don’t forget your name” (to mean I remember it). This is because the imaginary state of “forget” cannot be separated from its causal act of “forgetting.” Of course, one can say something like: “I can’t forget that melody; it’s stuck in my head” because one is referring to the act of forgetting, which is no different grammatically from saying “I can’t remember your name.” Not being able to do the act works with either word, while not being in the state does not work with both words because they are not both states.

“I have forgotten your name ever since we met” sounds awkward and illogical because the act of forget must be inferred and competes with the state of forget. There is no word, not even a new imaginary word that can mean both “I have forgotten,” and “So, now I don’t know it any longer,” and be a stative verb. It’s impossible.

Now, even my opponent David cedes the following:
“In particular, I find your observation about the ungrammaticality of sentences like "I have always forgotten thus-and-such" to be truly interesting. It's the one point of yours that I've found myself unable to defeat to my satisfaction, …”

Nothing else need be said in this matter. Nothing else need be proven. If one understands why “forget” as stative in the present perfect is rejected, then one should be able to understand why “forget” as stative in the present tense must be rejected too – it simply makes no sense. Using “forget” as a state, causes an illogical conflict between “forget” as an act, and forget as a state regardless of which tense is used. A person’s ear may adapt to “I forget you name” as sounding fine, but becoming accustomed to oddness does not make something grammatical.

All grammatical sentences must make sense, or they are relegated to being expressions, idioms, non-standard, or other terms that marginalize them. Thus, any usage of “forget” as stative must be considered to be in essence ungrammatical.

Now to move on to counter claims of why “forget” as a state should be considered acceptable, normal, and grammatical – all of which are rather tenuous.

Appeal to False Analogy

In what may be the best argument, my opponent directly challenges the premises of my arguments:

My opponent says, “As you know, I don't agree with your metaphysico-grammatical view that ‘no state can begin with its own cause.’”

I am certainly not basing my arguments on some philosophical metaphysico-grammatical view. It’s just logical reality. A state simply cannot be its own cause. You can’t have it both ways. It is for this very reason that one can say, “I have forgotten your name,” (act) but cannot say “I have forgotten your name for a long time,” (act + state). You simply cannot put the causal act together with the state and form a grammatically sound stative sentence. Conceptually a state means just the way things are; states are timeless and causeless; e.g., “I just like going to movies.” There is no cause to the state of “like.”

In an attempt to challenge my claim my opponent argues that no cause for the state of “forget” need be implied: “No causality is required for that state, just as the statement ‘I remember your name’ needn't be interpreted as referring to a state causally initiated by the dynamic act of recalling it. In the case of ‘I remember your name,’ one indicates that the name is present to mind, that one consciously has the name in memory. In the case of ‘I forget your name,’ one indicates, quite simply, that the name is missing from one's conscious memory.”

Certainly no causal act for “remember” is required; as previously stated, not all things in the domain of “remember” need be expressly remembered. Can “forget” work the same way? Can the information just be missing – ignoring the causal act of having forgotten? When “missing” was used in an attempt to find a suitable counter state to “remember” that did not suggest a causal act, I rejected "I'm missing your name," as merely meaning “I don’t know your name.” My opponent then countered that “missing” does not mean the information is just not there, but had been there and left:
“Now, is the sentence ‘Your name is missing from my memory’ (or "I'm missing your name") synonymous with ‘I don't know your name’? To me, the two sentences are not synonymous. I don't know quantum physics, for example, or the name of your great grandmother, but I would not say that either of those "things" is missing from my memory. They were never there to begin with. Not only do I have no mental connection with them; I never did.”

So to recap, “forget” (as stative) is said to mean the information is not there in the conscious memory without implication of a causal act; it's just "missing." And, when “missing” is used to replace “forget,” to better demonstrate this, “missing” not only circumvents the need for a causal act, but also does not refer to information that is just not there, but to information that was there at some previous time. Thus, there is both no causal act suggested, and the absent information was at one time present.

If true, I would have to interpret “I forget your name” as being synonymous with “I don’t have the information about your name any longer (it's missing).” It would not be like simply saying, "I don't know your name," but be much like, if not exactly like “I don’t know your name any longer.” This could in turn be simplified to “I don’t remember your name.” Thus, we end up with:

“I forget your name” = “I don’t remember your name.”

The problems here are firstly that the declaration that forget may mean there is no causal act, as is the case with "remember," is not justified. “Forget” explicitly means the information was forgotten, and there is no information that we are referring to that was not expressly "forgotten." Furthermore, in regard to using “missing” as a substitute for "forget," and meaning information that was once there, is no longer there, we must consider that missing can also mean that something is “not present or included when expected or supposed to be, as in ‘You can fill in the missing details later.’” So, it does not always mean the item in question was there to begin with. Therefore, saying, “I'm missing your name from my memory," is ambiguous as to whether the information was there to begin with or not, unlike what "forget" was purported to mean, in that the information was factually there at one time. Also, "missing" implies there is a mystery as to why the information is absent. Compare "I lost my watch," to "I'm missing my watch." One can easily see, they are not synonymous; one has a definite cause and one does not. Are we to accept that "I forget your name" has no particular cause that is known? Are we not certain that something was in fact forgotten? Lastly, if "I'm missing your name," were really the same as what "I forget your name" is supposed to mean, then one could just say that instead --"I'm missing your name," yet no one does.

The quandary of the defense of "forget" as stative is exemplified by the fact that "forget" as stative has been set to mean unable to remember, failure to recall, have no remembrance of, have forgotten, and missing. How can a word mean all of these when none have the same meaning as the others?

Appeal to Authority

One authoritative quote given to support “forget” as stative was the following:

"To forget, originally to lose remembrance of, is sometimes used in the meaning of to have no remembrance of, the original momentaneous aspect of the verb having, accordingly, passed into an indefinitely durative aspect. Thus especially in the frequent I forget (the name, the exact details, etc.). . . . In its changed aspect the verb is less frequent in its variations of person or tense, but instances cannot be said to be uncommon. . . . To forget in its changed aspect is practically equivalent to to have forgotten, which expresses a state consequent on the act of forgetting, or losing remembrance of. This form of the verb, indeed, appears as a variant of the simple verb in the above application, especially when used in another person than the first, or another tense than the present."-- Poutsma, H. A Grammar of Late Modern English, Volume 5, Part I, pp. 302–303. Groningen: Noordhoff, 1926.

Though Poutsma suggests that the “momentaneous aspect … passed into an indefinitely durative aspect," he also gives the disclaimer “To forget in its changed aspect is practically equivalent to to have forgotten, which expresses a state consequent on the act of forgetting, or losing remembrance of.” Having forgotten implies a consequent state of missing information, but the act of forgetting is clearly there. As agreed upon, one cannot say, “I have forgotten your name for a week.” Again we see a rather tenuous argument for “forget” having any true stative aspect; it may be just shorthand for present perfect. One must ask, why not just use present perfect in the first place? “I have forgotten your name” emphasizes present impact, sounds more polite, and is clearly grammatical.

Appeal to Dictionaries

Though many dictionaries give definitions that seem to suggest “forget” can be stative, only a very few give actual examples like “I forget your name” that support what seems to be stative definitions. I contend that many such definitions are not defining “forget” to be stative at all, but are only defining the consequence of having forgotten something. Cambridge, for instance, gives a “stative definition,” but then gives nothing but dynamic examples. “Forget: to be unable to remember; fail to remember: [T] You’d better not forget your mother’s birthday.[+ (that) clause] She forgot (that) she had a dental appointment.[+ to infinitive] Don’t forget to lock the car.

Obviously, what appear to be stative definitions may not actually be meant to be such. It may simply be the consequence of having forgotten something that is being defined, which is supported by the quote by Poutsma presented previously: “To forget in its changed aspect is practically equivalent to to have forgotten, which expresses a state consequent on the act of forgetting, or losing remembrance of.”

Appeal to Etymology

When one examines the etymology of “forget” it is crystal clear that the intended meaning of the word was to “un-get,” or to “lose one’s grip on” the information:

forget (v.) Old English forgietan, from for-, used here with negative force, "away, amiss, opposite" + gietan "to grasp" (see get). To "un-get," hence "to lose" from the mind. A common Germanic construction (compare Old Saxon fargetan, Old Frisian forjeta, Dutch vergeten, Old High German firgezzan, German vergessen "to forget"). The literal sense would be "to lose (one's) grip on," but that is not recorded in any Germanic language. Related: Forgetting; forgot; forgotten.

From the above, we can see there can be no doubt what-so-ever that the original intended use of “forget” was only an act and in no way a state.

My opponent counters with the following etymological examinations, claiming they are more complete and confirm “forget” as having a stative aspect:

forget . . . pt. forgot, pp. forgotten, arch. and dial. forgot fail to remember. OE. forgietan, pt. forgeat, -geaton, pp. -giten = OHG. firgezzen (G. vergessen); WGerm. vb. f. *fer- FOR- (i)+*getan take hold of, GET . . . the etymol. meaning being 'miss or lose one's hold'. . . .-- The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, edited by C. T. Onions. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1966.

forget v. Before 1250 forgeten, in Bestiary; developed from Old English (about 725) forgytan (for- away, amis, opposite + -getan get, as in begietan beget; see GET); corresponding to Old Frisian forjeta forget, Old Saxon fargetan, Dutch vergetan, and Old High German firgezzan (modern German vergessen). According to the OED the sense of the verb that can be abstracted from its parts, is that of miss or lose one's hold or grasp (on the mind). -- Chamber's Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart. Chambers: London, 2012.

Note that the Oxford version gives “arch. and dial. forgot fail to remember.” This apparently means that forgot as a past participle is no longer widely used, but meant “fail to remember,” which would be equivalent to “I have failed to remember your name.” Fail to do something is an act (a negative act or something you didn’t do), while not being able (unable) is a state. One can say, “I failed to remember …,” but one must say, “I am unable to remember …,” clearly indicating the former to be an act, while the latter to be a state. So, there is absolutely nothing there that indicates stativeness. They go on to say, “miss or lose one's hold or grasp… .” “Miss” is a word meaning without, but is no longer used except in the present participle form – “missing.” Let’s substitute “missing” for “miss.” Forget means missing one’s hold on the mind. The information is missing its hold (or lacks hold) on the mind? The information doesn’t have a hold on one’s mind, or one’s mind doesn’t have hold of the information. This all sounds like the information fell away or was forgotten. If this is taken to simply mean the information is missing from the mind, that just cannot be because to forget something means it was once known. There is just no getting around that.

In the Chamber’s version, the etymology posted from the Online Etymology Dictionary is clearly supported: “(for- away, amis, opposite + -getan get, as in begietan beget; see GET), so there is no dispute that it supports forget’s dynamic use. But, in support of a stative use it merely refers readers back to the people at Oxford: “According to the OED the sense of the verb that can be abstracted from its parts, is that of miss or lose one's hold or grasp (on the mind).” From its parts! This does not indicate etymological change. Its parts can only mean to lose one’s grasp on because “for” means to go away from. There is a major contradiction here if “miss” is taken to mean “without,” while claiming that its meaning can be abstracted from its part “for-”. Again, a very tenuous bit of evidence for stativeness.

Appeal to Stative Examples of Forget

One example that my opponent mustered was given in his closing remarks to the concession he made, which was quoted near the beginning. He went on to say:

“… for I don't think it is necessarily undermined by the grammaticality of sentences like 'I have long forgotten what he said to me,' even though the latter construction is unavailable in prototypical dynamic-verb cases: ‘I have long lost my watch.’”

Though my opponent fully admits that the sentence “I have long forgotten what he said to me” falls short of proving “forget” to be stative, he makes the point that it works better than saying "I have long lost my watch," so there must be some degree of stativeness to "forget." "Long forgotten" and "long lost" are not proper verb phrases. They are adjective phrases. The correct expression is “I have long since forgotten what he said to me,” which just means long ago, and is in no way stative. This works equally well with "lost," "I have long since lost my watch."

Definition of LONG SINCE
: long ago
: for a long time

My opponent later went on to say:

“Perhaps, in light of the above remarks, it could be said that 'forget' is not so dynamic that it fails to be acceptable in sentences of the 'I have long forgotten what he said to me' variety, but not so stative that it can work in sentences of the ‘I have always forgotten thus-and-such’ variety.”

As we now know, the phrase “long forgotten” is not a verb phrase, but an adjective, as in “The long-forgotten jewels were accidentally discovered,” so the comparison is invalid.

long-forgotten (ˌlɒŋfəˈɡɒtən)
1. belonging to the past; no longer remembered

Appeal to Philosophy

“… in the early part of his career, … Wittgenstein saw logic as lying at the foundation of language. The 'later Wittgenstein' … had come to see things quite differently. He writes: 'For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language'"

Wittgenstein does not speak of abandoning logic and made no mention of the word “forget” in the quote provided, so we don’t know if Wittgenstein includes “forget” as stative in the class he speaks of. Who, however, would not agree that words often derive their meanings from usage anyway? Constructs must still be logical however. Saying “I forget” your name is illogical because the state cannot be separated from the act. “I don’t forget your name,” could never mean “I remember your name” because both the act and state are contained within the word “forget.” One would have to say, “I didn’t forget and don’t forget in the same expression to cover both aspects of “forget.” One would have to say “I didon’t forget your name” to mean remember. It’s all just absurd.

Quoting Wittgenstein further:

“Here's another good quote: ‘The more narrowly we examine actual language, the sharper becomes the conflict between it and our requirement. (For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not a result of investigation: it was a requirement.) The conflict becomes intolerable; the requirement is now in danger of becoming empty.—We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk.

-- Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations, Section 107 (emphasis mine). Translator: G. E. M. Anscombe. Prentice-Hall: New Jersey, 1953.”

It is obvious that Mr. Wittgenstein is defending logic, not renouncing it: “For the crystalline purity of logic was, of course, not the result of investigation: it was a requirement.” Logic is not determined through investigation, logic is a requirement that preexists on its own. He further supports this by drawing the analogy that when the conflict between use and logic become “intolerable,” the requirement of logic is in danger of becoming “empty.” When there is no “friction” between logic and use (when logic is ignored) it is like walking on ice making us unable to walk. Without logic as a governing foundation there is no uniformity to language.

My opponent goes on to say:

“I'd like to share the following passage from Plato's Theaetetus (circa 369 BC).

Socrates: Please assume, then, for the sake of argument, that there is in our souls a block of wax, in one case larger, in another smaller, in another more impure and harder, in some cases softer, and in some of proper quality.

Theaetetus: I assume all that.

Socrates: Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it, just as we make impressions from seal rings; and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know.

-- Plato, Theaetetus, 191d-e (source)

"Whatever is impressed upon the wax we remember and know so long as the image remains in the wax; whatever is obliterated or cannot be impressed, we forget and do not know." I believe that the sense of "forget" in that passage is a stative one, and that that is why "forget" is so naturally coordinated with "do not know."

If information is obliterated from the wax, it is forgotten. We “forget” the information that is rubbed out. Yes, we forget things all the time; that’s dynamic. But, “Forget” always means that the information was known and then lost, so the quote simply makes no sense in reference to “or cannot be impressed, we forget and do not know.” This is illustrated in the following quote taken from a British play: “[Honey] I forget your name, sir. [Bailiff] How can you forget what you never knew? He he he.” ~ British Theater…, 1828 p. 476. One cannot forget what one never known.

Appeal to Irrelevant Relationships

“Before I conclude, I'd like to consider the following three sentences:

1-I forget your name.
2-I forget what your name is.
3-I forget that your name is Mark.”

To briefly summarize, my opponent states that (3) must be taken to be dynamic, (2) is most naturally taken to be stative, so (1) could be taken to be similar to either (2) or (3) depending on your ear.

David, my opponent, states:

“Let's return to examples (1)–(3). Sentence (1) ("I forget your name") is ambiguous. I and everyone I know would hear it as equivalent to (2) ("I forget what your name is"), but perhaps you hear it as equivalent to a sentence like (3) ("I forget that your name is Mark"), in which the "that"-clause signifies a positive fact rather than an embedded question or subordinate interrogative ("I forget what your name is").”

In the above my opponent alludes to how one “hears” the sentences, which dismisses the fact that my arguments deals only with logic, and he seems to further support (3) as dynamic because of the use of the relative pronoun “that,” but obviously one cannot be in a state of “forget” when one states the person’s name in the sentence. I would not hear (1) as (3) because nobody is going to say "I forget your name," in a dynamic sense meaning forgetting someone's name over and over. I would simply hear it as an ungrammatical attempt to be stative. He says that, “’that’-clause signifies a positive fact rather than an embedded question or subordinate interrogative,” so apparently using “forget” in a “that-clause” makes “forget” dynamic, while in embedded questions or subordinate interrogatives “forget” should be stative. This is supposed to be endorsed in the following quote of a book entitled The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum “Subordinate interrogatives mainly occur in complement function, where they have to be licensed by an appropriate head — for example, we can have I forget whether Kim was present but not *I regret whether Kim was present."

So, “forget” is an “appropriate head for saying “whether Kim was present” because "whether" is supposed to be an interrogative? Since when was “whether” considered to be an interrogative? Taking a true interrogative, we could say, “I forget why Kim was absent.” So, that should be OK as stative, but in “I forget that Kim was absent,” is not because “that” cannot be preceded by a stative verb, only a dynamic one. One can only mean to forget over and over here. Let’s examine this more carefully with "forget" taken to be stative in both of the following examples:

I forget why Kim was absent. (supposedly correct as stative)
I forget that Kim was absent. (supposedly incorrect as stative)

It is agreed that the former sounds better than the latter. Let’s see why by substituting the more conventional “I have forgotten” for “forget.”

I have forgotten why Kim was absent. (sounds fine)
I have forgotten that Kim was absent. (still sounds odd)

The problem with saying “I have forgotten that…” is that having forgotten a currently known fact that you yourself are speaking of is a logical impossibility – one cannot have forgotten something that one is currently speaking of, so yes it can't be stative. One can only say “I had forgotten that Kim was absent.” One can be in the state of a why-clause however, or the act for that matter. I can’t recall why Kim was absent,” "I don’t know why Kim was absent,” “I can’t remember why Kim was absent,” “I have forgotten why Kim was absent,” "I forgot why Kim was absent," etc.

Does any of the above prove that "forget" can be stative? In the above grammatically sound negated states, could one use "forget" instead of the negation phrases? No, and that’s because no state can contain its own cause. Just because "forget" cannot be used as a state with a “that-clause” doesn't mean "forget" is acceptable as a state in a "why-clause."

Furthermore, in the quote where Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum seem to use “forget,” statively, its use is actually ambiguous. “Forget” can be used to mean, “have forgotten,” as shown in the quote of Poutsma; it can be used to be dismissive (not important); and it can be used as a way of ignoring the time gap between the act of “forgetting” and the utterance of the statement. Thus, in the above there is no particular endorsement of “forget” as being used precisely statively. The authors never came out and said that “forget” can be properly used as a state verb.

In conclusion, my argument is simple and based upon the logic of the concepts involved, and any attempts to challenge it are doomed to failure, for one cannot defeat a logical truth; one can only cloud the field by going off on various tangents that somehow sometime appear to be valid, but are in fact false analogies, equivocation errors, misinterpretations, and any number of other fallacies. Forget is not and cannot be stative because the converse of any state can only be expressed by saying one is not in that state: … don’t, am not, etc. Any attempt to form an opposite, or more properly stated, a counter state of “remember,” without reference back to the original state is doomed to result in grammatical insufficiency because there simply is no specific state one goes to when one leaves any given state. The more important point, however, is quite simple: No state can be its own cause. All that would be represented by a state of “forget” would have had to have been forgotten at some time in the past, which precludes any possibility of “forget” being a state.

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