Tense and Aspect: A Brief Overview
Oct 22, 2010 Grammar 3981 Views
There are two forms of tense in English: PRESENT and PAST. The present tense can be used to express present events (e.g. Ronaldo passes the ball to Kaka), a habit or routine (e.g. I go to UCS three days a week), general facts (e.g. The sun rises in the east), an occurrence in the future (e.g. the train arrives at 3 pm) or historic present- in literary English and oral narrative (e.g. He just walks into the room and sits down in front of the fire without saying a word to anyone).
The past tense is used to describe an action, activity, or state that took place in the past (e.g. I watched a movie last night). The present tense form ties the situation described closely to the situation of utterance; on the other hand, the past tense form makes the situation described more remote from the situation of utterance. Some basic meaning distinctions between different tense forms are offered in terms of the REMOTE/NON-REMOTE and FACTUAL/NON-FACTULAL status of perceived situations.
Examples: I worked as a translator three years ago. (Past: remote + factual)
I study towards my master's at USC. (Present: non-remote + factual)
The verb form that is traditionally called 'the future tense' is actually expressed via a model verb which indicates the relative possibility of an event. Situations in the future are treated differently. They are inherently non-factual but can be considered as either relatively certain or unlikely or even impossible.
Examples: I will see you soon. (Future: non- remote + non- factual)
If I was rich, I would change the world. (Hypothetical: remote + non-
Unlike tense, which is concerned with the location of a situation, aspect is concerned with the internal dimensions of a situation whether it is fixed or changing, or it may be treated as lasting for only a moment or having duration, and it can be viewed as complete or as ongoing. Aspects can be subdivided into LEXICAL and GRAMMATICAL aspects.
I. Lexical Aspects
The lexical meaning of the verb may convey aspectual meaning. The verbs can be divided as follows according to their aspectual meaning:
Cognition Verbs Relations Verbs Punctual Verbs Durative Verbs
Believe be Acts Activities Processes
hate, belong hit eat become
The verbs denoting stative concepts tend not to be used with progressive forms. After buying a house, English speakers are not likely to tell people, I'm having a house now, because that would suggest a process rather than a fixed state. The progressive aspect used with a stative verb often signifies a temporary state: You're being foolish. I'm having a bad day.
The verbs that typically signify punctual concepts, describing momentary acts, have a slightly different meaning in the progressive form: He's kicking the box, She's coughing. These are interpreted as repeated acts, not as single acts. Dynamic verbs used in the progressive aspect typically signify ongoing activity.
II. Grammatical Aspects
The grammatical aspects are basically versions of the PROGRESSIVE (be + -ing) and the PERFECT (have + past participle). With the progressive, a situation is viewed from the inside as potentially ongoing at that point 'in progress', relative to some other situation. With the perfect, a situation is viewed from the outside, typically in retrospect, relative to some other situation.
Consider the meaning of the following sentences with the simple forms as opposed to the progressive ones:
- I raise my arm! (event) / I'm raising my arm. (duration)
- My watch works perfectly. (permanent state) / My watch is working perfectly. (temporary state)
- The man drowned.(complete) / The man was drowning (but I jumped into the water and saved him.)
- When we arrived she made some coffee. (two events following one another) / When we arrived she was making some coffee. (ongoing action at the time when something else happened)
Consider the meaning of the following sentences with the simple form as opposed to the perfect(ive) form:
- We lived in London for two months in 2001. (complete) / We have lived in London since last September (and still do.)
Meaning in Context
There are two different kinds of information that can be found in academic writings, magazine articles, narrative texts, news reports… (a) Background information where the past tense signifies scene-settings, specific acts or old focus. (b) Foreground information where the present tense signifies changes, general statements, facts or new focus. For example,
“One night, when Donald was driving home, his car skidded down Hill Street and was demolished. Donald was killed in the accident. This leaves us with Dolly to account for, and what a sad tale we can write for this little girl. During the months in which her parents’ will is in probate, she lives on charity.
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