Aspectuality in English - Temporal Perspectives and Properties

Bachelor Thesis, 2011
43 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction
1.1 Central Questions
1.2 Corpus Material

2 Literature Review
2.1 Aspectuality
2.1.1 Aspect
2.1.2 Aktionsart
2.2 Summary

3 The Structure of Situations
3.1 Telicity and aspectual perspectives
3.2 Verb semantics and aspect meaning

4 Results and Explanations

5 Conclusion

6 References


Table 1: Overview of 'temporal' and 'aspectual' features

Figure 1: Comrie's classification of aspectual oppositions

Figure 2: Revision of Comrie's classification of aspectual oppositions

Figure 3: Aspectual parameters underlying the Vendler classification

Figure 4: Constituency of situation types

Figure 5: Separation of aspect and Aktionsart

Figure 6: Scheme of telicity and perspective aspect

Figure 7: The imperfective paradox

Figure 8: Summary of the analyzed aspectual processes and concepts

1 Introduction

The study of aspect has been likened to a dark and savage forest full of "obstacles, pitfalls, and mazes which have trapped most of those who have ventured into this much explored but poorly mapped territory."1 Tense is perhaps equally confusing, but at least it is a well-known traditional area with concepts intuitively clear to speakers of the familiar Western European languages. Whatever tense, or the tenses, may be, speakers have some sort of notions about them: it is satisfying, for example, to consider the past tense to express past time. But aspect is not a traditional concept in the same way, and speakers of most European languages have no very clear notions concerning it. Nonetheless it is equal in importance to tense for the purpose of understanding how temporal relations are expressed in language.

(Binnick 1991: 135)

This paper aims at a closer examination of aspectuality in English. It illustrates the importance of a category which has only scarcely received attention in the study of the English language (cf. Binnick 1991). When it comes to the analysis of situations, the focus is on the verbal category 'tense,' which relates the temporal location of the situation to other points in time. The category of 'aspect' is closely connected to tense, because it provides important information about the internal temporal structure of situations. Nonetheless it is often less familiar to speakers of the English language, referring to, among others, the works of Comrie (1967), Brinton (1988), Binnick (1991) and Kortmann (1991). According to their studies, English lacks formal markers of aspect, whereas the realization of tense in English is quite obvious and thus much discussed.

1.1 Central Questions

Based on Binnick's (1991) description of 'aspectuality,' it is necessary to clarify this concept in detail. The central questions for this examination will be:

1. How can aspectuality be inferred from utterances when English lacks aspectual markers?
2. Are there systematic approaches that are concerned with the interaction of 'aspect' and 'Aktionsart' as defined by Comrie (1976) and Vendler (1957)?
3. In which ways do aspectual properties influence or change the semantic meaning of utterances and why?
4. What are the combination options of aspectual perspectives and properties and are there any restrictions consequent on the interaction of different aspectual values?

This paper serves not just to answer these questions, but also tries to differentiate between the various subcategories of 'aspectuality,' which are in general difficult to distinguish properly. On this basis, examples such as (1) and (2) are given to analyze the properties inherent to the situation. Moreover, they serve to discuss their influence on the interpretation.

(1) I built a house.
(2) I built houses.

Both examples are displayed in past tense and therefore show no obvious differences between (1) and (2). This feature belongs to the verbal category of 'tense,' which is illustrated in table 1 below.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Table 1: Overview of 'temporal' and 'aspectual' features for (1) and (2)

Additionally, the aspectual features have been taken into consideration. The analysis of (1) and (2) reveals several properties, which can be distinguished and then lead to different meanings of both utterances.

Example (1) uses the 'perfective aspect,' which means that the situation is presented as "a single unanalysable whole" (Comrie 1976: 3) and its internal temporal structure cannot be analyzed further. Furthermore, (1) depicts an 'accomplishment,' which is a special kind of action referring to the Vendlerian classification of situation types (cf. section 2.1.2). Closely connected with Vendler's concept (1957) is the feature of 'telicity' that is inherent in the situation displayed in (1). Dowty (1979) has developed this concept of aspectual parameters to characterize the inherent features of situations and to be able to distinguish between the situation types.

Example (2) is given in 'imperfective aspect,' which means that a situation is presented from an internal viewpoint and its internal temporal structure is analyzable (cf. section 2.1.1). According to the 'Vendler classes,' example (2) illustrates an 'activity'. Moreover, the aspectual parameter 'atelic' can be ascribed to this type of situation. Therefore it represents the exact opposite to (1).

This paper offers a literature review with a deliberate elaboration of the concept of aspectuality along with different approaches in the study of aspectuality and their underlying concepts. The literature review in section 2 is followed by a section, which presents analyses of situations. The aim of the investigation is, to provide a practical access to the topic of aspectuality by exemplifying the theoretical knowledge from section 2 and to develop answers to the central questions of this paper. Finally, the results of the investigation are presented in section 4, followed by a conclusion in which the central findings of this paper are summarized.

1.2 Corpus Material

The examples, which are presented in section 3, have been taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English , henceforth referred to as COCA (Davies 2008), which has been released in 2008. According to Davis (2008), the COCA is "the largest freely-available corpus of English." It contains over 425 million words and has steadily grown from 1990 up to today. It is estimated that each year over 20 million new words enter the COCA . The data that is provided represents a large amount of authentic language material, which has neither been simplified nor been changed to match the theoretical elaborations of this paper. The advantage of the use of corpora for this paper is that statistical data is offered objectively. It is used to verify results of scientific theories. Due to this feature, the COCA substantiates the theoretical concept, which is presented in this paper, with appropriate examples of the English language. Since "corpus data provides us with incontrovertible evidence about how people use language" (Francis & Sinclair 1994: 191), the investigation is based on the COCA to ensure scientific reliability.

As the concern of the analysis is not focused on comparing the frequency of occurrences of certain words or utterances, but on providing examples of language materials to exemplify the theoretical discussions, it is not necessary to give any instruction to find special phenomena and their occurrences in the COCA . In the first search a sentence that includes a simple verb form should be found. The verb has to be specified as f.ex. love.[v*] . This item searches the simple present verb form of love included in distinct utterances. The second search aims at finding the same verb in the progressive aspect use, which is expressed as loving.[v*] . The result of this search includes every utterance that occurs with a progressive use of 'love'. The resultant examples of the aspectual use can occur in 'present tense' as well as 'past tense,' but since this paper is not concerned about the verbal category 'tense,' it is not relevant for the analysis. The examples in the analyses display utterances in perfective aspect and in imperfective aspect. It is the only pattern, which has been applied in this paper.

2 Literature Review

This section will define general terms, which are essential for the illustration and further analysis of aspectuality. The treatments of 'aspect' lack a universally valid terminology, which evokes several problems concerning distinct definitions of various phenomena. The comparison of several linguistic approaches has shown that different terms are used to describe the same concepts as well as identical designations are related to different phenomena. To eliminate these problems, a distinct terminology of aspectual terms is used in this paper, which denotes the belonging to their respective subcategory.

The term 'aspectuality' accompanied by its adjective aspectual serves as a cover-term for both 'aspect' and 'Aktionsart' ( kind of action ) (cf. Dik 1997: 221), which is depicted in the subsequent sections. Another central term that may cause problems is 'event,' which has occurred frequently in different concepts or interpretations. It is strictly avoided in this paper and replaced by the general cover- term 'situation' displaying a state, an event, or a process. Sections 2.1.1 and 2.1.2 provide further definitions of aspectual features and terms, which are directly assigned to the particular subcategory.

2.1 Aspectuality

'Aspectuality' subsumes two different theoretical concepts of aspectual studies (cf. Brinton 1988: 5). The general uncertainty of the topic "led scholars to class in the same category a variety of linguistic phenomena which partly concern the grammatical function of verbal forms, partly the semantic differences between related formations […], partly lexical distinctions between different verbs" (Gonda 1962: 21).

Kruisinga (1931) and Comrie (1976) have come up with definitions, which attribute "different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation" (Comrie 1976: 3) and the indicator "whether the speaker looks upon an action in its entirety or with special reference to some part (chiefly the beginning or end)" (Kruisinga 1931: 221) to aspectuality. The emphasis of these approaches is mainly on the viewpoint of the speaker and the resultant depiction of the situation. Aspectuality expresses the "reference to one of the temporally distinct phases in the evolution of an event through time" (Johnson 1981: 152), which indicates a certain focus on the subjective perception of the speaker.

Following the definition of Jakobsen (1957: 493), aspectuality "deals with temporal values inherent in the activity or state itself". Aspectuality is described as signifying "the manner and way in which the action of the verb proceeds" (Brugmann 1904: 493). Taylor (1977: 164) simply puts it as the "function of discriminating the kinds of temporal 'things' which may be (linguistically) 'located' in the sequential order of time". These definitions differ from the conceptions of Kruisinga (1931) and Comrie (1976) with respect to temporal characteristics of situations, which seem to be an inherent property of situations in general.

The different treatments of aspectuality show that the phenomenon results from the interaction of two different aspectual categories, both carrying specific aspectual meanings of a situation. As the definitions have shown, one component emphasises the aspectual viewpoint and the other regards the type of situations. Brinton (1988: 5) states that "one can thus distinguish two disparate trends in aspectual studies: one concentrates on the grammatical meaning of verbal forms, while the other concentrates on the lexical meaning of verbs and their complements." The demarcation of 'aspect' and 'Aktionsart,' as it is presented in the following sections, should not be considered as the only possible distinction.

2.1.1 Aspect

The term 'aspect' was introduced "at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a translation of Russian vid 'view' (cf. Latin videre )" (Boogaart 2004: 1173). The root of the term is spect- , which derives from the Latin word spectare and is translated as to see (cf. Boogaart 2004). This origin corresponds to the definitions assigned to the first aspectual concept given in the previous section 2.1.

Before one can provide a unique definition of 'aspect,' a precise distinction of the two grammatical categories 'aspect' and 'tense' is required. Both are closely related and can easily cause confusion. Kibort (2008) explains the differences as follows: "Unlike tense, which is situation-external time, aspect is situation-internal and non-deictic, as it is not concerned with relating the time of the situation to any other time point". Thus, aspect is used to denote "the perspective taken on the internal temporal organization of the situation" (Kibort 2008). The English language system causes particular problems when it comes to the topic of aspect, since it seems to have no formal markers that express aspect meaning. Brinton (1988: 1) argues that "English is a 'tense,' not an 'aspect' language" because "formal markers of aspect are not predominant in the verb". As a result it has come to an interaction between the studies of formal aspect markers and on the other hand the studies of verb semantics. Brinton (1988: 19) characterizes this new approach as follows: "Though they were still primarily concerned with the formal expression of aspect in English, and specifically with the wide variety of aspectual markers in the language, they began with notional aspectual categories, rather than formal ones."

The German grammarian Deutschbein (1939) describes an aspectual system for English providing classifications that are considered to mark the most important aspectual notions. He is of the common opinion that aspect is defined as a perspective of the speaker, who presents a situation from a certain viewpoint (cf. Deutschbein 1939: 148). His aspectual system subdivides situations into three possible perspectives: the 'prospective,' the 'imperfective' and the 'perfective'. Yet, these early studies on aspect have not included the viewpoint aspect that Deutschbein mentions in his definition of aspect. Comrie's (1976) concept 'classification of aspectual oppositions' - illustrated in figure 1 - also includes Deutschbein's approach with the imperfective and perfective perspectives, but introduces additional subcategories.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1: Comrie's (1976: 25) classification of aspectual oppositions

Comrie (1976: 3) defines aspect as different views on the "internal temporal constituency" of a situation. He distinguishes between perfectivity and imperfectivity, subdivides imperfective meaning into habitual and continuous and the latter again into non-progressive and progressive. Since viewpoint aspect needs to be integrated into this concept, one can draw a line between perfective and imperfective. Comrie's classification indicates that a situation can be "seen either from an external viewpoint, as completed (perfective), or from an internal viewpoint as ongoing (imperfective)" (Boogaart 2004: 1166). For further examinations of aspect it is necessary to give a characterization of the perfective meaning as well as of the imperfective meaning, since both represent the major categories of aspect values (cf. Brinton 1988: 52).

Perfectivity indicates that entire situations are presented as a whole. That implies a person, who looks at the situation from the outside, without distinguishing any of its internal temporal structure. According to Comrie "the whole of the situation is presented as a single unanalysable whole, with beginning, middle, and end rolled into one; no attempt is made to divide this situation up into the various individual phases that make up the action of entry" (Comrie 1976: 3).

The imperfective, on the other hand, provides an internal perspective that looks inside its internal temporal structure. When it comes to the aspectual viewpoint, Kibort (2008) suggests that "perfectivity and imperfectivity are not objective properties of situations, and so the same situation can be presented from either viewpoint."

(3) John read that book yesterday.
(4) While he was reading the book, the postman came. (Kibort 2008)

Examples (3) and (4) show the same situation presented with a difference in aspect.

(3) illustrates a perfective situation presented from external viewpoint, whereas (4) depicts an imperfective situation presented from an internal viewpoint. Comrie's classification presents a further distinction between 'habitual' and continuous' on the sublevel of the imperfective (cf. figure 1).

Habituality "refers to situations which are characteristic of an extended period of time" (Kibort 2008). The situation itself can therefore be seen as a "characteristic feature of a whole period". Comrie (1976: 25) uses another definition for habituality which according to him exists when "the situation referred to is viewed not as an incidental property of the moment but, precisely, as a characteristic feature of a whole period." Thus it can be concluded that habitual situations need a high degree of regularity to be counted as habitual.

Filip and Carlson (1997: 10) revise Comrie's approach and treat his model as a classification of notional and formal categories. According to them, habituality is 'marked,' because "the category 'habitual' covers the explicit markers of genericity and the habitual uses of general imperfective verb forms." The habitual aspect is built with the help of the used to construction, as example (5) illustrates.

(5) Sally used to throw stones at my window in the morning. (Comrie 1976: 28)

Looking at this sentence, it is considered to be habitual if it is true that Sally threw stones at my window every morning over a time span of several months. The sentence is appropriate because the degree of regularity is very high. On the other hand it would be inappropriate to use this sentence when Sally threw stones two or three times only, because the degree of regularity is low. It is simple to analyze these two extremes, whereas it is more difficult to decide, when this utterance begins to be appropriate, because it is not defined how high the degree of regularity has to be, to make a situation habitual (cf. Comrie 1976: 27-28). When "we have decided that something constitutes a characteristic situation, we are free to use an explicitly habitual form to describe it, but the decision that a situation is characteristic is not in itself linguistic" (Comrie 1976: 28).

The aspectual opposition to habituality is 'continuousness,' which is defined as imperfectivity that is not habitual. Filip and Carlson (1997: 10) suggest that continuousness is "the unmarked member in the opposition 'habitual vs. continuous'." Comrie (1976) divides continuousness further into 'progressiveness' and 'nonprogressiveness' (cf. figure 1).

'Progressiveness' is characterized as a combination between a situation in progress, which is not habitual, and a non-stative meaning.

(6) When I visit John, he'll be reciting his latest poems. (Comrie 1976: 28)

Example (6) illustrates that progressive aspect used to indicate a situation that frames another situation. When I arrive at John's home, he is reciting poems, which is a situation in progress and thus includes progressive aspect. A non-progressive aspect would exclude this interpretation. Furthermore, the progressive aspect indicates that the topic time is placed within the event time. Since the progressive is a subcategory of imperfectivity, it looks inside the internal temporal structure of situations, as it has already been defined in connection with imperfectivity.

As the sentences in (7) and (8) illustrate, the non-progressive and the progressive are also compatible with the habitual, although they both belong to the category of 'continuous' aspect.

(7) John used to be writing poems. (Comrie 1976: 33)

Example (7) shows a situation that is imperfective, because it is a continuous process that carries progressive meaning. As a result, (7) can be seen as a fitting example for the imperfective/ continuous/ progressive meaning. Nevertheless Comrie (1976: 33) provides a different suggestion for (7) because

progressiveness is not incompatible with habituality: a given situation can be viewed both as habitual, and as progressive, i.e. each individual occurrence of the situation is presented as being progressive, and the sum total of all these occurrences is presented as being habitual (the habitual of a progressive).

(8) John used to write poems. (Comrie 1976: 33)

In contrast to (7), example (8) depicts this situation as an interaction between non-progressive and habitual aspect. That is because the "imperfectivity includes as a special case habituality, and a situation can be viewed as habitual without its being viewed as progressive" (Comrie 1976: 33).

Filip and Carlson (1997) revise Comrie's model of classification due to the special case of 'habituality' which is a property of the imperfective introduced by Comrie. They argue that the progressive and the non-progressive, as subcategories of the continuous aspect, are also subdivisions of the imperfective and thus should also include the habitual aspect. Filip and Carlson (1997: 10) come to the conclusion that "there do not seem to be imperfective forms (with or without explicit markers of 'continuousness') that exclude the habitual meaning or are not determined by habituality, while at the same time allowing for a progressive or a non-progressive interpretation."


1 See also: Macaulay (1978: 416ff.), as quoted in Binnick (1991: 135)

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Aspectuality in English - Temporal Perspectives and Properties
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel  (Englisches Seminar)
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Aspectuality, Aspect, Aktionsart, Temporal Perspectives, Temporal Properties, Types of Situations, Comrie, Vendler
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Janine Klinge (Author), 2011, Aspectuality in English - Temporal Perspectives and Properties, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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