'tell somebody' with action verbs/state verbs

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Senior Member

I encountered some pattern in my textbook: "tell somebody how to VERB".
Some examples are given below:

1. Sally told Fred how to win the race.
2. Sally told Fred what to talk about.
3. Sally told Fred when to leave.

In all these three sentences, the underlined verbs express voluntary actions, not states.
The authors of the say that all these three sentences are acceptable.

But what is not clear to me is whether the following sentences 4, 5, 6, in which the underlined verbs all express states, not actions, are as acceptable as 1, 2, 3 above.

4. Sally told Fred how to realize it's raining.
5. Sally told Fred what to resemble.
6. Sally told Fred when to understand physics.

All these sentences are from the book "Simple Syntax, P.464". The authors of the book seem to see the six sentences above to be all acceptable.
But to me, 4, 5 and 6, with state-expressing verbs, sound less acceptable/natural than 1, 2 and 3, with action-expressing verbs.

What do you think of this?
It would be very helpful if you could share your intuitions with me.
  • rhitagawr

    Senior Member
    British English
    I agree the first three sentences are a lot better than the last three although I’m not sure it has anything to do with actions and states. No one would say the last three sentences. You’d be pretty stupid not to know when it was raining. What was he supposed to resemble – a horse, a tree? When was he supposed to understand physics – on Tuesday, at Christmas?

    He told me to stay calm expresses a state. The sentence is perfectly acceptable. Other examples:

    He told me not to be so stupid.
    He told me to look interested.
    He told me not to feel bad about it
    Last edited:


    Senior Member
    English - England
    I think 4, 5 and 6 are OK grammatically, but are not constructions that anyone would need to say in real life, if they did, the context in which they would be said would be unusual... perhaps if Sally were a director instructing actors?

    4. Sally told Fred how to realize he was mentally ill.
    5. Sally told Fred what to resemble when he gave his impression of a monster.
    6. Sally told Fred when to understand what had been said, as he tended to only listen to half of the instructions.
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